After falling to UConn in the NCAA finals, Duke’s 1998-99 season of brilliance was forgotten. Which begs the question: what do we say about the losers?
As we look through the history of sports, we must ask ourselves, how do we remember the teams that dazzle for a entire season only to fizzle out at the end? Too many times, we forget that college basketball season is a journey and focus entirely on the end result. That’s why Jim Valvano’s 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack NCAA champion basketball team is remembered more fondly than the ‘91 UNLV Runnin Rebels or ‘93 Michigan Wolverines. And while champions are to be lauded and forever etched in our hearts and minds, let us not fail to remember the teams we held in awe until they felt the sting of defeat.
The 1998-99 Duke basketball team is a team worthy of recollection. The story actually begins a year previous, when Duke surrendered an 18-point lead to Kentucky in the 1997-1998 Regional Finals. Missing a trip to the Final Four would have had most programs dwelling on what could have been, and the loss had the potential for lasting effects on the team. However, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski calmly waited for the start of the 1998-99 season with his most complete team yet.
With superstar forward Elton Brand having a entire offseason to recover from a foot injury and 3-point specialist Trajan Langdon returning for his senior year, Krzyzewski had a incredible foundation to build upon. Heralded freshman Corey Maggette would provide otherworldly athleticism to pair with heady forwards Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell. Maggette’s superb wingspan, length, and ability allowed Krzyzewski to field interchangeable lineups that decimated his opposition. With sophomore guard William Avery at the helm, Duke’s high-octane machine was a juggernaut waiting to be unleashed.
On the season, the Blue Devils finished no worse than seventh in country in rebounds, points, assists, three-point makes and percentage, steals, blocks and made free throws. A narrow loss against the No. 15 Cincinnati Bearcats on Nov. 28, 1998, dropped Duke to 5-1. However, the Blue Devils bounced back with a 73-67 victory over ninth-ranked Michigan State at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, on Dec. 2, 1998.
After disposing of North Carolina State, Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina A&T, a highly anticipated rematch with No. 3 Kentucky took place on Dec. 22, 1998. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, there would be no epic comeback this time, and behind Brand’s 22 points and eight rebounds, Duke cruised to a 71-60 victory.
The fourth-ranked Maryland Terrapins, led by Steve Francis and Terence Morris, awaited No. 2 Duke at Cole Field House on Jan. 3, 1999, in one of the most anticipated games of the year. After a back-and-forth first half left the game tied at 37, Duke outscored Maryland 45-27 in the second half to win going away 82-64.
The Blue Devils laid waste to their next five conference opponents before a matchup with the No. 8 St. John’s Red Storm at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 24, 1999. St. John’s provided Duke with its toughest test of the regular season as Duke scratched and clawed its way to an 92-88 overtime victory.
Next up was Duke’s biggest rival, the No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Avery’s 21 points silenced the Heels as the Blue Devils pulled away in the second half 89-77. Then, after fending off a valiant effort by Georgia Tech, Duke closed out the regular season with six straight victories by 20 points or more, culminating with an 81-61 triumph over North Carolina on UNC’s Senior Night to finish undefeated in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular-season play.
The Blue Devils easily dispatched Virginia and Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament before facing North Carolina for a third time. It was not a charm for the Heels as Duke demolished them 96-73 to capture its 10th ACC tournament title.
With 27 consecutive wins, the consensus National Player of the Year in Brand along with Langdon, Avery and Maggette, experts made Duke the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship. The No. 1 seed Blue Devils gave no reason to think otherwise as they blitzed Florida A&M, Tulsa, Missouri State, and Temple in the East Regional to advance to the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In the national semifinal, Michigan State offered resistance, but ultimately succumbed to the Blue Devils 68-62 with Brand’s 18-point, 15-rebound performance leading the way.
Winners of 32 straight, Duke was an overwhelming favorite against UConn. However, the Huskies were up to the task and shocked the Blue Devils 77-74, with Richard Hamilton’s game-high 27 points leading the charge. After the loss, Avery said, “I was just sad at that point. It wasn’t the feeling that we didn’t win the game. It was the feeling that it was the last time this team will be on the court together.”
Battier spoke of how frustrating it was to “come all this way and come up short of our goal.” A team for the ages would now be mentioned only because of its’ title game collapse. With the upset loss in the title game, Duke finished the season 37-2, with Brand, Avery and Maggette declaring for the NBA Draft at season’s end.
New York Post writer Anthony Gargano summed up the ‘99 Duke squad by saying, ”Connecticut may not be Villanova or North Carolina State, since the Huskies were no slinky sled dog, but Duke was Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma and Georgetown’s Bad Boyas. The Blue Devils were Rebels with a No Out Clause. They deserved a better fate. But now they can’t deserve a place among the greats.”
Duke’s romp throughout the 1998-99 campaign ended in disappointing fashion, and the loss to Uconn is what the team will be remembered for most. Unfortunate as it is, the dominance that it displayed prior to the title game was rendered moot by the loss.
“I have a hard time being sad. I’m really proud of my team. I really love these guys. I’m sorry, I don’t coach for winning. I coach for relationships. I got the best. I mean we’ve won a lot because of that, and I’m just glad I’m in their locker room. These kids have had a sensational year, and I thank them for taking us along.” – Mike Krzyzewski
Although Duke won the national title in 2001 behind Battier, Jay Williams, and Mike Dunleavy, Krzyzewski’s most talented and dominant team ever left a title on the hardwood floor in St. Petersburg.
One must wonder how many times does the ‘99 Duke squad look back and say “on any other night, we would have been champs?”
On any other night, Langdon would have tied the game at 77 with a 3 at the buzzer and the Blue Devils would have finished UConn off in the overtime.
On any other night, ‘99 Duke would have been crowned one of the all-time greats.
On any other night. H&A
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All photos courtesy Duke Athletics