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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Freeman, Calhoun reminisce about Hamilton, whose number will be retired by UConn

    UConn's Richard Hamilton, left, looks for a shot against Duke's Shane Battier in the second half of the 1999 NCAA championship game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Huskies defeated the Blue Devils for their first national title. On Saturday in Storrs, Hamilton will have his No. 32 raised to the rafters at Gampel Pavilion. UConn meets Big East rival Villanova at 8 p.m. (Eric Draper/AP File Photo)
    In this March 29, 1999, file photo, UConn's Richard Hamilton carries the NCAA championship trophy after participating in a news conference following a 77-74 win over Duke at Tropicana Field which gave the Huskies their first national title. (Ed Reinke/AP File Photo)
    Former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, left, stands with his starting five from the NCAA men's basketball championship team of 1999 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Next to Calhoun, from left, are Kevin Freeman, Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin, Ricky Moore and Jake Voskuhl.

    Kevin Freeman laughs heartily while telling stories about Richard “Rip” Hamilton, his former UConn basketball teammate, roommate and still close friend.

    He recalls their legendary one-on-one pick-up games after practice that lasted for hours and almost resulted in fistfights between the fierce competitors.

    He thinks about how crazy it was that they had a conversation about hitting game-winning, buzzer-beaters — something that Hamilton had never done — just hours before Hamilton capped off a frantic final seconds by sinking a fall-away jumper to beat Washington in the 1998 NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

    He remembers begging Hamilton to cut his razor-sharp nails that he’d dig into his teammate’s stomach while curling around screens, leaving behind scratches and even sometimes ripping Freeman’s jersey.

    And then there was Rip Time.

    The laid-back Hamilton was chronically late for almost everything.

    It’s a safe bet that Hamilton will be on time Saturday night when he’ll become only the second UConn men’s basketball player to have his number retired during a halftime ceremony of the Villanova game that starts at 8 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion. Hamilton’s No. 32 will take its place next to Ray Allen’s No. 34 jersey, which already hangs in the rafters.

    Hamilton will make the trip with his family from his home in the Los Angeles area.

    “I’m happy for him,” Freeman said. “He’s extremely excited. His family is excited to have this moment.”

    Hamilton’s impressive career is filled with magical moments and fond memories.

    His UConn accomplishments include being the program’s only two-time winner of the Big East Player of the Year award and twice achieving All-America status. He’s the program’s second all-time leading scorer with 2,036 points. A No. 7 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, he went on to have a stellar professional career, winning a title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and becoming a three-time all-star.

    Hamilton will be forever remembered for helping the Huskies win the program’s first national championship in 1999.

    UConn started down that championship path the day Hamilton, a native of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, stepped on the Storrs campus in 1996.

    “He was the first guy that could lead us to a national championship,” said Jim Calhoun, Hamilton’s former UConn coach and legendary Hall of Famer. “We had great players before. Ray Allen was a Hall of Famer. Rip is a collegiate Hall of Famer.

    “Rip was a very special player. He’s a very unique kid in the sense that I truly believed that nothing bothered him. People say, jeez, the pressure. I don’t think Rip even thought about it. He just had that way about him — him and KFree, who were like brothers and still are. He was gifted and could run like a deer. … He made, at times, the games look easy. He was a terrific teammate.”

    Freeman started to get to know Hamilton before their UConn days.

    In 1996, they attended the same ABCD Adidas camp in New Jersey that featured the top high school recruits in the country. They also played against each other on the AAU circuit.

    In a crazy coincidence, Freeman’s ABCD camp team included Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and Jake Voskuhl, all future Husky teammates.

    “We didn’t know each other,” Freeman said. “We had no clue about each other. We were on the same team. The odds of that happening are crazy. And we didn’t speak about UConn or speak about coming to UConn. Those pieces started at that point.

    “That’s when I first met Rip and our relationship carried over throughout AAU.”

    At UConn, they eventually became “thick as thieves,” Freeman said. They were roommates during their sophomore and junior years.

    Freeman explained why they became so tight, on and off the court.

    “We were both so competitive,” Freeman said. “We both knew we wanted to win here at UConn. We both wanted to have great careers. It was just an immediate bond. We had a lot of similarities. We had a lot of the same friends on campus.”

    Hamilton began to emerge as a star toward the end of his freshman season.

    As a sophomore, Hamilton delivered one of the most memorable moments in UConn’s long and storied postseason history in the East Regional semifinals against Washington on March 19, 1998, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

    Earlier in the day, the subject of buzzer-beaters came up.

    “Then, that night, he hits a buzzer-beater,” Freeman said. “It was the craziest thing ever. I’ll never forget that morning talking about it. We were watching old films of Magic Johnson and the Lakers and it was about buzzer- beaters.”

    Looking to jump to the NBA after UConn’s NCAA tournament loss to a veteran North Carolina team in the regional final, Hamilton instead took the advice of Calhoun and stuck around for another year.

    And the Huskies, led by Hamilton, went on to make program history. Hamilton scored 27 points in a 77-74 win over Duke in the 1999 national championship game and earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.

    Hamilton already has been inducted into the Huskies of Honor and was selected to UConn’s All-Century Team.

    Calhoun’s relationship with Hamilton has evolved over the years.

    But Rip is basically still Rip, Calhoun added.

    “To this day, when we get together, he’s still one of the most popular guys because he’s Rip,” Calhoun said. “He became much more mature. What a basketball player he was. He really grew into a terrific person, player, 14 years in the league.

    “... He’s one of my favorites of all-time. I just told him that I took him for granted a little bit. I didn’t take that jump shot for granted and all the great things that he could do. … I’ve really come to appreciate him. And there’s no question in my mind that we’re closer now than when he played for me.”

    Freeman looks forward to spending time with Hamilton this weekend.

    They’ll surely reminisce about their UConn glory days.

    But they’re long past the point of wanting to engage in one-on-one battles on the basketball court.

    “I’m sure he’s going to talk,” Freeman said. “He’s going to say that I never beat him. … It comes up at some point every single time. I don’t think anyone wants to see us (play) anyway. It would be bad basketball.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    Villanova at No. 1 UConn

    Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

    Tip time: 8 p.m. (Fox)

    Records: UConn 24-3, 14-2; Villanova 15-11, 8-7

    Last game: UConn lost at Creighton, 85-66, Tuesday; Villanova beat Butler, 72-62, Tuesday

    Series: UConn trails, 39-35, winning last meeting 66-65 on Jan. 20 in Philadelphia

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15.4 pts, 6.9 rebs, 5.7 assists), 6-4 graduate guard Cam Spencer (14.8 pts, 4.6 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (10.7 pts, 4.2 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14.3 pts, 5.3 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (12.3 pts, 6.5 rebs, 2.1 blks)

    Villanova, 6-2 so. guard Mark Armstrong (8 pts, 2.2 rebs), 6-5 sr. guard TJ Bamba (10.4 pts, 3.6 rebs), 6-5 grad guard Justin Moore (10 pts, 3.1 rebs), 6-7 grad forward Tyler Burton (8.2 pts, 6.7 rebs), 6-8 r-sr. forward Eric Dixon (15.9 pts, 6.3 rebs)

    Noteworthy: ESPN’s College GameDay on campus from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturday. … UConn is trying to avoid its first two-game losing streak since January 2023 when it lost three straight to Marquette, St. John’s and Seton Hall from Jan. 11 to Jan. 18. … Villanova has won three in a row. … In the first meeting this season, Newton scored 25 points, Spencer 14 in the win. Huskies led 29-24 at halftime. … UConn in first place, Villanova in sixth in the Big East. … Top reserve: 6-4 so. guard Brendan Hausen (7 pts) has scored in double figures in five straight games. … UConn and Villanova No. 1 (64.5 pts) and No. 2 (65.9), respectively, in scoring defense in the Big East overall. … Huskies saw their 14-game winning streak end on Tuesday with a road loss to Creighton. … Hot: Clingan leads the Big East overall in FG% at 64.5. Cold: Villanova 9th overall in FG% at 42.7. … After Saturday’s game, UConn has three regular season games remaining. … Huskies are 14-0 at home, Wildcats 3-6 on the road. … Dan Hurley on the Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year Late Season Watch List. … As of Friday, UConn stood 4th in the NCAA NET Rankings, Villanova 34th. … Up next: UConn is off until hosting Seton Hall on Sunday, March 3, in Storrs.

    – Gavin Keefe

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