Elated Connecticut fans greet championship team
Posted: Wednesday April 14, 1999 05:27 PM
STORRS, Conn. (CNN/SI) -- For coach Jim Calhoun and his Huskies, it was a long, steep climb to the championship.
In the school's 21st NCAA appearance, UConn finally earned a berth in the Final Four. But only a day after guiding Connecticut to its first national title, Calhoun chose instead to reflect on the return trip.
"The journey back home was incredible," said Calhoun.
The Huskies returned to campus Tuesday, and once inside Gampel Pavilion, the team was embraced by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 10,000 fans.
Calhoun spoke of the journey he began 13 years ago to build the No. 1 team. A big bump in the road was the 1990 heartbreaking loss to Duke. A buzzer-beater by Christian Laettner kept the Huskies from the Final Four.
"We returned to Storrs to mend our broken heart," said Calhoun. "Yesterday, we kicked some butt and broke some hearts."
Connecticut upset Duke 77-74 in the championship game Monday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., surprising many who felt the Blue Devils were all but unbeatable.
The national title was the first for the men's team in school history and the first for a New England team since Holy Cross won the tournament in 1947. The UConn women brought home the national title in 1995 with a 35-0 season.
The team and coaches sat on a raised platform in front of the student section, the same section Calhoun has saluted each time he has walked off after a game.
"We couldn't wait to come back home to you and bring back the national championship back," Calhoun told the crowd.
Fans rocked, rapped and waved signs throughout the rally. At one point, thousands began chanting "One more year!" -- directed at scoring leader Richard Hamilton, the Final Four MVP.
Hamilton flirted with leaving before his junior year for the NBA. Speculation on whether he or sophomore guard Khalid El-Amin will return for another year has heightened during the Huskies' successful run.
Calhoun said neither one has approached him yet on the subject.
"It's not my job to convince them to stay. It never has and never will," he said. "These are young people going through the process. It is their decision."
But Tuesday was not about saying goodbye to anyone. It was Thanksgiving in Connecticut and recognizing the top team in the land.
"You stood by us. You believed," senior point guard Ricky Moore said. "We didn't let you down."
Earlier, at Bradley International Airport, about 2,000 fans cheered and screamed as the players mingled in the crowd. Leigh Anne Crocco of West Haven jumped frantically up and down as her hero, Jake Voskuhl, gave her a high-five.
The 11-year-old was breathless for a moment before announcing, "Jake touched my hand!"
Hundreds of fans surged forward seeking hugs and autographs. "Yes! Yes!" shouted Ralph Rousa of Waterbury, who managed to get Hamilton's autograph for his 6-year-old son, Nicholas, and El-Amin's autograph for his 3-year-old son, Michael.
At the close of the pep rally, the team walked off the podium and shook hands with some of the fans and proceeded in a slow victory lap around the floor.
"When it was all said and done, Duke had a magnificent season -- up to a point," said Calhoun. "The great thing about our sport is you settle things on the court. This was supposed to be the year of the Blue Devils."According to one of the scores of signs and banners held up in Gampel, "1999 was the Year of the Dog."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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