Former UM star Darius Rice (43 points vs. UConn) pumped for Canes-Huskies in Final Four

The last time a University of Miami basketball game against Connecticut made national headlines, Isaiah Wong, Nijel Pack, Jordan Miller and Norchad Omier were toddlers and Wooga Poplar was 15 days from being born.

It was Jan. 20, 2003, and anybody who has been following Hurricanes basketball since then remembers the game well. UM’s Darius Rice scored a career-high 43 points, including the winning three-pointer at the buzzer, and almost single-handedly beat then-No. 11 UConn 77-76.

Rice, now a high school coach in Texas, remembers every detail of that game. All the memories are flooding back this week as the Hurricanes prepare to face UConn on Saturday night in the Final Four in Houston. It is the first Final Four in UM history, and Rice is beaming with pride.

“Just sitting back watching it and knowing the struggle that we went through to get to this point, all these years, trying to convince South Florida that we could play ball, too,” Rice said.

“There was a stigma of this being a football school, football town. We weren’t drawing enough fans or media to be a basketball school. Now, we’re in the Final Four, and we get another battle with UConn, just like in the Big East days.”

Rice said he hopes Saturday’s game ends the way his game did 20 years ago.

In a sight rarely seen at UM basketball games back then, a throng of students flooded the floor as Rice ran a victory lap around the court. For the second time in as many games at the team’s new arena, the Hurricanes pulled a thrilling upset. UM had christened its $48 million Convocation Center with an overtime win against North Carolina the previous week.

Watching in shock were the Huskies and their large rooting section, including then-Heat rookie Caron Butler, the former UConn star. Rice won the game after stealing an inbounds pass and launching the three.

“When [Shamon Tooles] let the ball go, it was in my reach, so I stuck my hand out, and when it touched my hand, I said, ‘This is mine,’” Rice said. “I saw the rim and I knew it was going in. The basket looked as big as the ocean all night.

“They went bigger on me, smaller, I think their whole team, including coach [Jim] Calhoun tried to cover me, but it was one of those nights.”

Then-UM coach Perry Clark also has vivid memories of that game.

“Jim Calhoun was very confident they were going to win, he was the most shocked,” Clark said by phone Tuesday. “That was a special UConn team. When I went to shake Jim’s hands, he had no words. That was a game, looking back, when Darius played to his potential and played like a man. The team responded.”

Asked that night if it was his career highlight, Rice smiled and replied: “Well, I scored 49 in high school. But that was against some little team. This was UConn.”

Surely, longtime Huskies fans also remember that game.

“I’m devastated right now, and our kids are crying,” Calhoun said that day. “It’s not just that we lost, it’s the way it happened. We had 3.2 seconds on the clock, and great free-throw shooters out there, and you expect something good to happen. Instead, something bad happens. It’s one of the toughest losses I can remember.”

Rice was especially motivated to win that game. He had scored 33 points against the Huskies on the road a week earlier, including a buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime, but the Hurricanes lost by three.

“I remember that feeling I had,” Rice said. “Their fans were so loud, and I thought, `We’re playing them at home in a week and I guarantee you we’re going to beat them.’ Also, his uncle, 49ers legendary receiver Jerry Rice was about to play in the Super Bowl.

“I had a great shootaround that morning. I got there early. Something said, `This is your night.’ I hit the first one, little layup and I started rolling. And the energy of the building, that was something I was waiting on for three years, to play at home in front of a crowd like that. We didn’t have any atmosphere at Miami Arena.”

Despite the lack of atmosphere at Miami Arena, then-UM coach Leonard Hamilton led the Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 in 2000. The year before, they finished No. 10 in the AP poll with a 23-7 record that included a win over eventual national champion UConn.

The Huskies, led by Richard “Rip” Hamilton, finished the season 34-2, and one of those losses was at home to Miami. Among the players on that UM team were Tim James, Johnny Hemsley, Mario Bland, John Salmons and Vernon Jennings.

Rice was still in high school that year, but he was friends with Bland and remembers what a big win that was for Miami, to beat a powerhouse like UConn.

“I have so many memories of UM-UConn games,” Rice said. “I was able to get a video of the game when I scored 43. I had it on VHS, but now I can share the video. It’s fun to relive it.

“I’ll never forget playing against those guys. Caron Butler, Taliek Brown, Ben Gordon, Johnnie Selvie. So many great Miami-UConn battles. And now, the biggest of all. I live two hours from Houston and hope to get to the game. I would give anything to be able to step on that floor in a UM jersey and hit one more three from the corner against UConn.”