NEW YORK – For more than a decade, the rivalry in women’s basketball was Tennessee and UConn.
After a 13-year absence, the teams will play again Thursday night, broadcast at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN from Hartford, Connecticut.
The powerhouse teams led by Hall of Fame coaches Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma put the sport on the national scene starting with their historic first matchup and No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 1995. The Associated Press Top 25 poll usually would have come out that day before the game, but a decision was made to hold it off until afterward – the only time that’s happened in the history of the rankings.
“It was the game. It was so intense,” former Tennessee star Tamika Catchings said. “It was the game you got pumped up for. It was do or die in the basketball sense. It was the game you knew was coming and you prepared for in the first half of the season.”
The Huskies and Lady Vols played 22 times over a 12-year span, with each one being a circle the calendar type of game whether it was in Knoxville, Tennessee, Storrs, Connecticut or the NCAA Tournament. UConn leads the all-time series 13-9, including 4-0 in the national championship game.
The series ended after the 2007 season when Summitt called it off. Auriemma said at the time that Summitt had accused the Huskies of a recruiting violation. Summitt never went public into specifics about why she ended the series. Summitt died in 2016 at age 64 of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Pat was a woman of high principles. When she discontinued the series with Connecticut, I trusted it was for good reason,” said former Lady Vols player Michelle Brooke-Marciniak. “Only Pat knows the real reasons she halted the series, and Pat took those reasons to the grave with her.”
When the teams played, it was must-see TV. Now that they are meeting again for a home-and-home set in the next two years, Auriemma knows that it will be different.
“We turned that spigot off, let’s turn it back on. It won’t be the same,” he said. “The coaching is different, the players are different, the media cycles are different. I don’t think it should be (the same). If we’re back to that, then you know what, we haven’t made the progress we think we’ve made. … What’s a bigger game this year, us and Oregon or us and Tennessee? Tennessee for the nostalgia stuff, Oregon for the real stuff.”
ESPN commentator Rebecca Lobo, who played in that first game in 1995 won by UConn, is excited the series is back, but isn’t sure what will happen.
“It’s not what it used to be, and I don’t know what it is until we see it on Thursday,” she said. “Will it be that Thursday will come and go? Or will it be something more? I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.”
Former Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, a longtime assistant of Summitt’s who helped set up Thursday’s game, told The AP that the reason she agreed to restart the series because it will benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation. Proceeds from both games will go to it, along with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame also will receive proceeds from the 2020-21 meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee.
First-year Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper has fond memories of when she played in the rivalry for Tennessee from 1995-99.
“Fans got into this game. There was an intensity about the game. There was high-quality basketball being played, so even people who didn’t have a dog in the fight were interested in the game because it was fun to watch,” she said. “For us as players, it was fun to play in those games. These were some of our biggest crowds. I think we all enjoyed it. We enjoyed the competition.”
She isn’t sure if the series will continue after next year.
“I don’t (have an opinion) yet. I’m sure at some point I will have an opinion, but I don’t yet. I think right now we’re in it, we understand it. We’re looking at it as an opportunity and kind of see how it goes,” she said. “I think part of that, honestly for us, will be the rest of our schedule and how that plays out. Just how we move forward with them and what other stipulations do we have, whether it’s two-year, four-year … and television coverage. There’s just a lot of things that go into it.”
Candace Parker plans to watch the game on TV on Thursday night if her schedule permits. She was a big part of the last meeting in 2007. She had 30 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks and the sixth dunk of her career to lead the Lady Vols 70-64 win.
As great as that game was for her, Parker’s favorite memory is she never lost in her two games to the Huskies.
“It’s something that I always would mention to Coach Auriemma when he would make comments during USA Basketball practice,” she said, laughing. “I’m happy for women’s basketball fans. I think it’s great. I think it’ll be a good rivalry that’s restored, and it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Most of the current players on both teams were in elementary school for the last meeting, but they’re aware of the history.
“I’m not sure that it will hold the same emotion that it did when they were playing back then, but we know it’s still a big game and not one that we want to give up.” said UConn senior Crystal Dangerfield, who said she loved former Tennessee star Chamique Holsclaw growing up in Tennessee. “That was a nasty player. But I mean, after a while you see where I am. I turned blue.”
The Huskies hinted that they might be wearing throwback jerseys for the game Thursday night.
AP Sports Writers Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Connecticut and Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this story.
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