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Column: Getting nostalgic

By Tim Fontenault
On February 17, 2014

My freshman year was highlighted by the UConn men's basketball team's run to its third national title.
That run was unforgettable. The Huskies won Maui, then five games in five days in the Big East Tournament. After that, Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky and Butler fell in order and Storrs went into party mode.
I lived on a floor with a lot of kids from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Only one or two other guys on the floor grew up rooting for UConn, so I got weird looks when I said that the 2010-11 season was not my favorite.
"Are you crazy?" one friend asked me. "What about Kemba?"
Kemba is great, and that team was awesome. However, as great as many UConn teams have been in the past, none will ever overtake the 1998-99 team, in my opinion.
The 1998-99 team will be honored Sunday at Gampel Pavilion, 15 years after shocking the world.
Naturally, I am a little nostalgic, so I want to take a walk down memory lane.
The season prior ended in heartbreak. After winning the Big East title over Syracuse and after the famous legendary Richard Hamilton put-back against Washington, the Huskies fell to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, one win shy of their first Final Four.
UConn came flying out of the gates to start the 1998-99 season, starting 19-0. Those first 19 games included five ranked opponents. They beat Washington by 21 and Michigan State by 14. No one could touch the Huskies.
The toughest game in that early stretch was at Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, but that was the day that 6-year-old Tim realized that Khalid El-Amin would always be his favorite Husky.
Ranked No. 1 in the country, the Huskies were down by four to the No. 18 Panthers with 15 seconds to play. UConn got the rebound on a missed free throw and brought the ball down the court quickly. El-Amin rolled off a Jake Voskhul screen and dished the ball to Albert Mouring, who drained a wide open 3-pointer with nine seconds to go.
Jim Calhoun immediately called timeout to set up a plan to get the ball back.
On the inbound out of the timeout, Pittsburgh could not get the ball in and ultimately threw the ball away. UConn could have let the ball go out of bounds and reorganize.
Instead, Kevin Freeman, now an assistant coach for UConn, grabbed the ball and got it to El-Amin. The short, stocky point guard lived through hell that day as the subject of unspeakable abuse from Pittsburgh fans, but he kept his cool. The sophomore drove the lane, spun around and put up a shot in his defender's face, a shot that found nothing but net.
El-Amin stood on top of the scorer's table and stared down the Pittsburgh fans that harassed him throughout a 70-69 UConn win.
That game proved UConn was for real. Nothing that happened after said otherwise.
The two losses that season were tough ones, but only served as motivation to get better. Syracuse ran the Huskies out of the Hartford Civic Center five days before UConn went on the road and beat No. 4 Stanford by 11.
Three weeks later, Miami edged UConn out at home. I think that game made me realize how much I hate losing and how little I cared for Miami forward Tim James - feelings that have changed since he left basketball to serve in Iraq - but that game was also the last UConn lost all season.
From there, the Huskies dominated. In the Big East Tournament, they beat Syracuse by 21 in the semifinals and St. John's by 19 in the championship game.
UConn stormed through the NCAA Tournament, holding off attacks from Iowa, Gonzaga and Ohio State to set up a matchup with Duke in the National Championship Game.
The Huskies had never been to the Final Four, let alone the title game. Duke was partly to blame for that - Kentucky fans are not the only ones to feel the wrath of Christian Laettner.
Leading into the game, UConn was written off. The Blue Devils had not lost since Nov. 28, when they were upset by Cincinnati. Some call it the most talented team in college basketball history. A couple weeks after the championship game, Elton Brand was taken first overall in the NBA Draft by the Bulls. Trajon Langdon, Corey Maggette and William Avery went 11th, 13th and 14th respectively. Shane Battier was only a sophomore.
But UConn did not care about the hype. That was not the most talented team Storrs has ever seen - Richard Hamilton was the lone player to go on and star in the NBA - but it had grit, heart and an unmatched love for basketball.
I watched that game with my family and friends, unable to sit, unable to stop pacing around my living room. When Langdon tripped as he raced up the court, I did not stop to think; I ran outside.
"UCONN!" I screamed over and over again while running around in a circle.
The Huskies won the national championship over Duke by a score of 77-74.
Hours later, my family was at Gampel Pavilion with close to 15,000 other happy fans. There were no extra seats, so a UConn student standing on the concourse offered to put me on his shoulders so I could see.
From on top of that unknown person's shoulders, I watched my heroes walk out on the court. Out came El-Amin and Hamilton, Voskhul and Souleymane Wane, Freeman and Ricky Moore.
Then Calhoun.
"In 1990," Calhoun said, "I came back to this building with a group of great players...we returned to Storrs, Conn. to have you mend our broken hearts, because we had lost a very difficult game to Duke on a Christian Laettner shot.
"Well yesterday, we kicked some ass and broke some hearts!"

Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_Fontenault 


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