GREATEST MOMENTS | Rhode Island bounced Kansas during 1998 Elite Eight run


Rhode-Island-greatest-1How quickly ecstasy can turn to agony during March Madness.

Rhode Island was a minute away from its first Final Four in 1998, a minute away from becoming the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four since 11th-seeded LSU in 1986.

But the No. 8-seeded Rams did not make it despite the sports moment judged the greatest in school history — an 80-75 upset victory against No. 1-seeded and No. 2-ranked Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We played very sweet today,” said Cuttino Mobley, who torched the Jayhawks for a game-high 27 points.

It was also redemption of sorts for first-year head coach Jim Harrick, who led UCLA to the national title in 1995 but was fired before the start of the 1996-97 season.

“There is a Heavenly Father and he was in the building this weekend, I’ll tell you that,” he said, “because it couldn’t be more magical than it was.”

Tyson Wheeler, who triggered the Rams’ up-tempo offense, added 20 points and 8 assists. The Rams’ backcourt combined for 53 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, compared with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists by the Kansas backcourt.

“I can still remember looking at them at some point during the game and thinking, these guys really feared us,” Wheeler said in 2012. “You could tell by the way they looked, the way they were playing, that they knew they were in trouble.”

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Jayhawks, who were hoping to roll to the Final Four one year after their 34-2 team lost to eventual national champion Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Kansas led 39-32 lead with 17 minutes remaining in the game, but Rhode Island rallied to take their biggest lead, 65-55, with 8:24 to play. After a 7-0 run by Kansas, Mobley’s 3-pointer with 5:11 left.

That blunted any further comeback attempt by All-Americans Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz, who led the Jayhawks with 23 and 22 points

“Besides the Arizona game,” Ryan Robertson, a junior starter for the Jayhawks in that game, said in 2006, “that’s the worst experience I ever had at KU. Why would I want to re-live that?”

The Rams beat No. 13-seeded Valparaiso 74-68 in the Midwest Regional semifinal then lived their own heartbreak in a 79-77 loss to Stanford in the regional final.

Trailing 71-65 with 59.3 seconds to play, the Cardinal rallied to win. Wheeler missed three consecutive free throws with a chance to tie the game at 77 with five seconds remaining.

“I would definitely tell a kid to think of something positive, or say something positive when you’re about to shoot,” Wheeler said years later. “Have a keyword that you can go to every time. So you’re not thinking about the shot, you’re just thinking about the word and following through and making the shot.”

For Wheeler and the Rams, that keyword could be Kansas.

“It’s funny because, I still see Paul [Pierce] from time to time,” Wheeler said. “I’ve had my son with me, and he’ll say, ‘Your father ended my college career.’ That always sounds good coming from him.”

• University of Rhode Island Athletic Hall of Fame

Monday: Quinnipiac and Radford
Tuesday: Rensselaer (RPI) and Rhode Island
Wednesday: Rice and Richmond
Thursday: St. Bonaventure and St. Cloud State
Friday: Saint Joseph’s and St. Lawrence

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.