UConn Women’s basketball renews ‘special’ rivalry with Tennessee

Some of the all-time Greatest players including Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings.

Seventeen Top-5 matchups and four meetings in the national championship game.

“It was probably the first and only classic women’s basketball rivalry on the level of North Carolina and Duke,” Auriemma said Wednesday morning over Zoom. “… It became something really special.”

The two programs renewed the rivalry ahead of the 2019-20 season after not playing each other for 13 years. This Thursday’s game in Knoxville (8 pm/ESPN) is the final one in the teams’ latest series contract.

While the two teams are different than what they once were, both Auriemma and now Tennessee head Coach and former Lady Vol Kellie Harper believe there’s something special between the teams and what the rivalry has done for the sport.

“I think the game has been good,” Harper said Tuesday. “I think it’s good for both fan bases. You can see that by the attendance and the excitement and obviously there’s just a lot of extra noise, extra hype prior to the game with this matchup. You can see the national attention it has drawn. I think that the buildup has been really good for Women’s basketball and getting people talking about these two programs.”

Harper, who played under Summitt from 1995-1999, says she still remembers how big the atmosphere got when Tennessee played UConn.

“The environments were amazing,” she said. “We had sold out arenas. I remember the competitive games. Probably the players as much as anything. Just so many talented players on both sides of that rivalry wall. … Just to feel the buzz, it was so alive.”

Auriemma said he sat his current players down the other day and told them about the importance of the rivalry, the history and what to expect when they enter Thompson-Boling Arena and play in front of 20,000-plus fans.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’re still standing, you know, through all this and all this time and all these changes. We’re still hanging around here, the top four or five (teams) and it’s still going to be a big game,” Auriemma said about the rivalry. “Everybody thinks it’s a big game. But there’s gonna have to be a real rejuvenation for their players and our players to kind of get caught up in it.”

The series started in 1995 and initially stopped in 2007. Following Summitt’s passing in 2016, Auriemma said the opportunity arose through ESPN for the programs to play each other again while donating to the Pat Summit foundation and bringing awareness to Alzheimer’s.

Auriemma said during this time it was hard for the program to find non-conference opponents, so he welcomed the idea of ​​restarting the series.

“We had been away for so long that whatever animosity was there, it just wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “That was one reason. The other is not surprising; you would think that people would be so anxious to play us on a regular basis that there would never be any problems getting games like that. And that wasn’t the case.”

The Huskies beat Tennessee in Hartford, 60-45, in the first meeting of the rivalry’s new era on Jan. 23, 2020.

UConn played in Knoxville in January 2021, but it wasn’t anywhere close to its normal environment because of the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were hardly any fans in the stands to witness then-freshman Paige Bueckers’ 3-point dagger that sealed UConn’s 67-61 win.

Last February, the Huskies again beat the Lady Vols 75-56 thanks to 25 points from then-freshman Azzi Fudd. UConn debuted its throwback edition jerseys (a nod to the jerseys the Huskies wore when they first faced Tennessee in the 90s).

With the Pandemic no longer at its height and ESPN’s “College GameDay” hosting this year’s event, a large, passionate crowd is expected Thursday.

Former Lady Vol Andraya Carter and former Husky great Rebecca Lobo will be on the call for the fourth-ever edition of a Women’s basketball GameDay. The Huskies Hosted the first Women’s basketball GameDay in Storrs in 2010 against Notre Dame.

Despite the teams being so far removed from what they once were, Auriemma says he’s noticed a positive shift in the UConn-Tennessee series.

“I don’t think our fans think they’re the worst fans in the world anymore. And I don’t think their fans think we’re the worst fans in the world anymore,” he said. “It’s healthy because it still means something. But I don’t know exactly what that is.”

Thursday’s meeting will be the first time in the 20-plus year rivalry that Tennessee will be unranked in the AP Top 25 Poll.

The Lady Vols have had an up-and-down season thanks to injuries and are just now beginning their turnaround back up with a nine-game win streak. Harper is in her fourth season coaching her alma mater.

Yet, that hasn’t lessened the attention on Thursday’s game.

Both Auriemma and Harper said the rivalry still holds special meaning to them.

It’s a reminder of two historic programs, countless iconic players and all the one-of-a-kind moments in every game.

It’s a reminder of the impact Pat Summitt had on the game.

“Pat’s Legacy went far beyond this program,” Harper said. “It went far beyond this community. She was able to touch so many lives here but (also) across the country and because of what she did and how she did it and what she stood for and the way she did it. … It opened the doors for a lot of women across the country.”

It’s a reminder of just how far the two programs have helped grow Women’s basketball.

“I admire what we had. I appreciate what we had,” Auriemma said. “I loved every minute of it. The fans loved it. The media loved it. The players loved it. Everybody loved it. … I loved it. I loved it. I loved it.”

Both Auriemma and Harper said they’d like to see the series continue past its current contract. UConn will have two extra non-conference games next year and Auriemma said he still finds value in playing Tennessee.

“As long as the game is good and people treat each other well, you know you can’t control the fans. I mean, the fans are the fans … but as long as it’s healthy and it doesn’t become something like it started to become last time, there’s a lot of value in playing the game,” Auriemma said.

[email protected] @maggie_vanoni

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