He arrived at Connecticut with a ready-made nickname. Rip. And although it didn’t seem to fit a scrawny looking character who barley weighed enough to be taken seriously, his early days with the Huskies were spent getting pushed around by his teammates in practice. Who knew the drive and an unwavering desire for greatness lived inside of the 170-pound freshman from Coatesville, PA. A kid that prior to being recruited had never even flown on a plane would turn into ninja-like marksman on the court.
As a high school star and coveted prospect, it was Hamilton’s lack of strength that caused him to develop slowly as a freshman. He would start every game, but shot less than 40 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. It wasn’t until January 19, 1996 that everything clicked for Hamilton and his fellow freshman Huskies. Rip reeled off an 18-point first half against a powerful Kansas Jayhawks squad, and although Uconn would fail to win the game, the confidence of a growing legend was established. As the Connecticut coaching staff continued to push him in his development, is was at the close of the year that everyone was rewarded with performances of Hamilton averaging 25 points in five NIT games.
Hamilton’s slight build created an illusion that he didn’t have each game tightly in his grasp, but his knack from fluttering from place to place on offense and finding open space the moment it was created eventually made him only the second player in UConn history to reach 2,000 career points. Rip prided himself on being unpredictable as there was no single way to defend him. He had a true understanding of what it meant to be a scorer.
The accolades piled up as Hamilton was twice named Big East Player of the Year, a second team All-American in 1998 and first team in 1999, the Most Outstanding Player in the 1999 Final Four, and reaching second on the all-time scoring list despite only playing three seasons.
To add to his stellar resume is a play that will forever be engrained in the minds of the Huskie faithful. Facing Washington in the Sweet Sixteen in 1998, Connecticut led for nearly the entire game. But a late 3-point basket by Washington with 30 seconds remaining gave them their first lead of the night, 74-73. In dramatic fashion UConn was afforded the final possession where center Jake Voskuhl missed a short jumper in the lane only to have the ball tipped back to Richard Hamilton who would miss the bunny putback. But as the ball continued to be batted around, it managed to find its way back into the hands of Rip who hit a fadeaway jumper for the buzzer-beating winner. For a player who had never once hit a game-winning shot in his career, his timing was impeccable.
However it was his final game at Connecticut where he made his longest and everlasting impression. In the 1999 NCAA title game, UConn faced what was perceived to be a mountainous task as they would meet up with Duke, who entered the game with a 37-1 record and were in the conversation as one of the greatest teams in college basketball history. But it was Hamilton’s night as he repeatedly lured Duke defenders into solid screens and popped open for mid-range jump shots that helped generate the Huskies’ stunning upset victory. Rip posted 27 points, lifting the Huskies into the elite status of college basketball programs. Prior to the win they had the reputation for falling short having lost three times in both the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight during the 90’s. Hamilton delivered the first National Championship for UConn and head coach Jim Calhoun.