A Great Moment in UConn Athletics History: The Men’s Basketball Team’s 1999 NCAA Championship

The 1998-1999 men’s basketball season at the University of Connecticut was unlike any other. Since the arrival of Coach Jim Calhoun in 1986, the team had grown by leaps and bounds, winning an NIT title in 1990 and achieving great success thereafter. But the Huskies had yet to capture the biggest prize of all—the NCAA national championship.

From the beginning, though, the 1998-99 season looked different. The Huskies started off with a 19-0 winning streak, though injuries tripped the team up in February 1999 with losses to Syracuse and Miami. But the Huskies would remain undefeated for the rest of the season. And many of the team’s victories were hard won—nine wins came only after the team had been trailing at half-time.

Personnel was key. While college teams tend to lose players after only a few seasons, the Huskies began the 1998-99 season with its full starting line-up from the previous year: senior Ricky Moore, juniors Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Kevin Freeman, and Jake Voskuhl, and star sophomore Kahlid El-Amin. Remarkably, this line-up almost never returned. Rip Hamilton was tempted to leave UConn for the NBA after two seasons, potentially motivating his close friend Kevin Freeman to move on as well.

Yet a discussion with Coach Calhoun convinced Hamilton to change his mind, and Freeman decided to stay too, not wanting to leave his friend and teammate behind. The whole team even had a chance to strengthen their camaraderie on and off the court with an overseas trip to London and Israel during the summer.

By the time spring rolled around, the Huskies were ranked number three in the nation, and were a top seed in the West, playing the opening round of March Madness in Denver. Yet the team to beat was Duke’s Blue Devils, the top-ranked team in men’s basketball and a strong favorite to win the championship.

The UConn players got a sense of the long odds in their hotel room the night before the final game. Gathered around the television, they saw images beamed in from Durham, North Carolina, where throngs of Blue Devils fans were already adorned with championship gear. The premature victory lap pulled the team together, steeling them for the big day.

Coach Jim Calhoun, however, arrived at the championship game feeling calm and confident. While Duke’s team was impressive, Calhoun sensed his player’s experience and determination would carry them to a win. Nevertheless, things did not look so serene on the court. Duke took an early 9-2 lead and bested the Huskies at half-time with a score of 39-37.

Yet the Huskies fell into an old pattern—pushing forward during the second half toward victory. After a series of before the buzzer free-throws delivered by El-Amin, UConn ultimately beat Duke 77-74 under the dome of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Many have named the March 29, 1999, championship game as one of the greatest match ups in college basketball history.

But the real show may have been the adoring crowds that greeted the Huskies when they returned home to Connecticut. A day after the final game, adoring fans lined the state’s bridges and roads to cheer as the team traveled to campus from Bradley International Airport and made the bus trip back to Storrs to greet waiting fans in Gampel Pavilion.

A victory parade around Hartford, a trip to the White House, and many other celebrations would cement the 1999 NCAA championship as an event to remember in the history of UConn sports.

For those interested in learning more about that historic season, Archives and Special Collections holds a range of materials related to the championship game, along with other collections on UConn sports. We invite you to view these materials in our reading room in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center and our staff is happy to assist you in accessing these and other collections in the archives.

This post was written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History Ph.D candidate who is a student assistant in Archives & Special Collections. 

 

Hugh S. Greer Field House

The Hugh S. Greer Field House was built in 1954. It originally served as the University of Connecticut’s basketball stadium, replacing the “Cage,” a temporary structure composed of two airplane hangars. In 1990, it became part of the student recreational facilities after the basketball teams left for the new Gampel Pavilion. A year later, the University Board of Trustees voted to rename the building after former UConn basketball coach Hugh S. Greer.

Hugh Scott Greer was born in Suffield, Connecticut, on August 5, 1904. He attended the Connecticut Agricultural College, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in 1926, and later received a Masters of Education from Springfield College. After a successful career as a high school coach, Greer came back to the University of Connecticut in 1946. He was hired as an Assistant Professor of Physical Education and coached the Men’s Basketball team. According to one report, Greer “never lost his composure on or off the court,” and he was awarded the Gold Key from the Connecticut Sports Writer’s Alliance in 1957 for outstanding contributions to sports in his home state.

At the time of his death in 1963, Greer held the record for most wins as UConn basketball coach. After he unexpectedly died from a heart attack, a plaque was installed in the Field House to commemorate his celebrated service at the University of Connecticut.

This post was written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History Ph.D candidate who is a student assistant in Archives & Special Collections. 

Harrison Fitch, the first African-American basketball player at Connecticut State College

Harrison "Honey" Fitch, the first African-American basketball player at the Connecticut State College, 1934

Harrison B. “Honey” Fitch was a basketball standout at his high school in New Haven, and in 1932 enrolled as a freshman at the Connecticut State College (the name changed later to the University of Connecticut).  He was a strong member of the CSC basketball team yet endured racism and harassment at times from the players of opposing teams, most notably in a game, on January 28, 1934, against the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London.  The Academy refused to play the game if Fitch was on the court, arguing, as Mark Roy wrote in the February 2, 2004, UConn Advance, that “because half of the Academy’s student body was from the southern states, they had a tradition ‘that no negro players be permitted to engage in contests at the Academy.'”

Fitch’s teammates threatened to leave the basketball court if he was not allowed to play, and Fitch joined them in warming up for the game, while the officials argued and delayed the start of the game for several hours.  Although the Coast Guard relented, and CSC won the game 31 to 29, the team’s coach, John Heldman, inexplicably kept Fitch on the bench the entire game.

Fitch left CSC at the end of the 1934 academic year and transferred to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.  He then worked in research for the Monsanto Corporation, married in 1939 and had two sons, and died in the early 1990s.  His son, Brooks Fitch, told Mark Roy that his father told him he had a good experience as a student at the CSC and was always a fan of UConn basketball.