On Sunday, the Detroit Pistons retired Richard Hamilton‘s #32 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. It was a nice honor for Rip considering he spent 9 of his 14 NBA seasons with the Pistons and helped them win the NBA title in 2004. He made 3 consecutive All-Star appearances with the team (2006-2008) and had a strong impact on the franchise during his tenure. For me, despite a successful NBA career, Rip will always go down as one of the greatest to wear a UConn jersey.
During his 3-year tenure at UConn (103 games), Rip averaged 19.8 pts/game, 4.5 rebounds/game, and 2.6 assists/game. He was an impressively strong and remarkably steady leader who was able to hit a big shot when the team needed it down the stretch, especially during the National Title run in 1999. In his final 2 seasons with UConn, Rip won the Big East Player of the Year and finished with the most field goals in the conference.
“He’s a rare combination of shooting touch and a feel for the game.” – UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun on Rip Hamilton
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The 1998-1999 season is where Rip Hamilton cemented his college legacy. UConn began the season ranked #2 in the country after a deep tournament run the previous season (Lost to #1 UNC in the East Regional Final). They were expected to have a strong team and did, finishing with a Big East regular season title and running the table in the conference tournament with a win over St. Johns in the final (Rip had 23 points and 7 rebounds in the championship game).
Once the NCAA Tournament started, UConn looked like a force to be reckoned with from jump-street. Behind Rip, the UConn team shalacked #16 Texas-San Antonio in the first round (91-66), handled #9 New Mexico in the 2nd round (78-56), and beat #5 Iowa by 10 (78-68) in the regional semifinals. After a tight contest in the regional finals with a potential cinderella team #10 Gonzaga (67-62), the final four was waiting for the Huskies.
Behind 24 points from Rip, the Huskies pushed #4 Ohio State aside (64-58) for a match-up with the vaunted #1 Duke team in the championship game. On March 29, 1999, Duke and UConn faced off for a much anticipated title game that did not disappoint. The talk was all about Duke’s power and UConn was a 9.5 point underdog entering the game. The Blue Devils had 4 future 1st round picks in it’s lineup (Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, and William Avery) and had won 37 games that season.
Despite all the pro-Duke build-up, UConn was more than ready to play and held Duke in check in the first half of the title game. Down just 2 points (39-37) with 20 minutes remaining, the UConn players believed in themselves and their chances, even if most others didn’t. UConn had been able to shut down superstar Elton Brand, which was critical to keeping the game tight.
The game continued to be neck-and-neck and down the stretch as UConn held a 4-point lead with under 2 minutes remaining. With 1:38 left to play, Langdon hit a huge 3 to shrink the UConn lead to 1. At the other end of the floor, Khalid El-Amin delivered for UConn with a nice baseline shot to bring the lead back to 3 (75-72). After a Ricky Moore foul and 2 made FTs, the game was back to 1 point with under a minute remaining. Could UConn actually pull off the upset or would Duke prove to be too much in the closing seconds?
With 34.3 seconds left, Jim Calhoun called a timeout to regroup with the game hanging in the balance. After the timeout, El-Amin missed a shot badly with 24 seconds left and Duke grabbed the board and a chance to win the game. Duke chose not to call a timeout and after bringing the ball up the floor. Langdon started to drive to the basket and thanks to stifling defense from Ricky Moore, tried to force the play and traveled. El-Amin was then fouled on the inbound play and hit 2 crucial FTs to bring the UConn lead to 3 points. Duke in-bounded the ball to Langdon with 5.4 seconds remaining and he brought it up the court and tried to get a shot off, but the ball came out and the buzzer sounded. It was over, UConn had won the program’s first national title by upsetting the Duke powerhouse.
“We shocked the world!” -Khalid El-Amin
Rip Hamilton was named the final four Most Outstanding Player and walked into the NBA draft as a champion.
“They knew they were going to win. They were going to beat the best, and they did beat the best tonight. As of this moment, we’re the best team in the country.” – Jim Calhoun on the 1999 Championship game
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My congratulations go out to Rip and his family for such a great honor on Saturday and for a great college and NBA career. You will forever be a Husky and a crucial piece of UConn’s first national title.