Duke and UConn spent the entire 1999 college basketball season circling each other and eyeing the other up. One or the other was at the top of the polls every week, and it ended with a much-anticipated Showdown in St. Petersburg, at the 1999 Final Four.
The Blue Devils were led by Player of the Year Elton Brand, with his 18 points/10 rebounds per game average, along with prolific scorer Trajan Langdon at forward and William Avery in the backcourt. Shane Battier, still only a sophomore, was a key role player.
UConn had a quality playmaker in Khalid El-Amin, and a big-time rebounder in Kevin Freeman. The Huskies also had a two-guard in Rip Hamilton who averaged 22 ppg and had a championship NBA future ahead of him.
Duke only lost one game and it came early, to Cincinnati in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament. The Huskies lost twice, both of them in conference play after February 1. The result was that Duke pulled ahead of UConn in terms of public perception and entered March Madness as the solid favorite to win it all.
Duke then blasted its way through the East Regional. UConn had a little more difficulty in their run through the West. Gonzaga was making its first impact on the national sports consciousness and gave the Huskies a spirited game in the regional final. In the end, both of the powers advanced to the 1999 Final Four in St. Petersburg.
Each drew a Big Ten team in the national semi-finals, with Duke pairing up with Michigan State while UConn squared off with Ohio State.
It was Tom Izzo’s first time in the Final Four with Michigan State and his program wasn’t quite at Duke’s level yet. Brand was a beast, with an 18/15 showing. In UConn’s game, Hamilton knocked down 24 points. Both the Huskies and Blue Devils won by six points. Their long-anticipated Monday Night showdown was set.
Duke came in a 9.5 point favorite, the number clearly driven by those who had forgotten how even both team were throughout the season. Brand was again a handful underneath, posting a 15/13 night. Langdon scored 25.
But UConn forced Avery into 3-for-12 shooting. Collectively, the Huskies shot 52 percent from the floor to the Blue Devils’ 42 percent. In spite of Brand, UConn controlled the boards 38-27 behind the work of Freeman and Ricky Moore.
The result was that UConn was holding a 75-74 late, with Duke coming upcourt for the possession that would decide the national championship. Langdon got the ball on the left wing and attempted to take Moore off the dribble, going baseline. It ended in a turnover.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would have to wait for what was then his pursuit of a third national title. Jim Calhoun had his first ring. Both men would be back to the winner’s circle on Monday Night two more times after this. At the 1999 Final Four, they gave basketball fans a great finish to a season they both dominated.