THOUGH LAMAR ONLY PLAYED one season of college basketball, it was a memorable one – both for him, and the University of Rhode Island.
The previous year, the Rams had nearly reached the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. But in 1999, Rhode Island started off at a stumble. By the end of the regular season and the arrival of the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament, the Rams (17-12) had been written off by the pundits regarding the NCAA tourney.
Those who looked a little more closely, however, would have seen a team starting to find its form, and a superstar in the making. LO, a sophomore after losing a year of eligibility transferring from UNLV, was averaging 17.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and nearly four assists per game. (He would eventually be named the Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year, and a member of its First Team.)
Rhode Island entered the A-10 Tournament with back-to-back losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham, Lamar missing the latter contest with the flu. Rams coach Jim Harrick tried to sound optimistic about his team’s chances of reaching the NCAA tournament, but even he could not deny that the team was in a downward spiral.
“We're kind of on the low side of the bubble now," he said.
Enter Lamar. In the quarterfinals of the A-10 tourney, LO scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in an 83-58 blowout of LaSalle. He continued to dominate in the semifinals against George Washington, collecting his 15th double-double (17 points, 11 assists) of the year in a 94-78 rout.
That set the stage for the A-10 title game against the Temple Owls, regular season conference champions.
Win, and Rhode Island would capture an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Lose, and the Rams were headed to the National Invitational Tournament.
With the game tied at 59 and less than a minute to go, Rhode Island made an impressive defensive stand, LO denying Temple’s Mark Karcher in the low post, and forcing an outside shot that missed. Lamar grabbed the rebound, and with 6.1 seconds remaining, he called timeout.
What happened next is summed up well by Paul Kenyon of the Providence Journal, writing on March 6, 1999:
It's the stuff of which legends are made, what Lamar Odom did on Saturday.
If they tried to make a movie with an ending like this, the critics would rip it as too unbelievable, too sentimental. Too sappy, even.
The rookie superstar scores the winning basket on a 25-footer at the buzzer in the conference championship. He plays a great game throughout, earning tournament MVP honors, all the while battling the flu and being unable to eat before the game.
When he tries to explain what he did, he breaks down in tears. When he does talk, he speaks not only about himself, but how happy he is for his team's two senior leaders, who, by the way, just happened to have tremendous tournaments themselves.
Oh yes, for one final angle. The championship the superstar and his buddies won for their school just happens to be the first in school history.
Like that, Rhode Island was headed to the Big Dance. Afterward, Harrick admitted what everyone already knew.“"We weren't in,” he said. “I almost know. (No), I know. If we didn't do it, we just weren't in. And now we are."