UConn comes to town

By Mark Nagi

For 13 years, whenever Tennessee faced UConn in women’s basketball, the world of American sports took notice.

Hall of Fame coaches. Hall of Fame players. Rabid fan bases. High stakes.

And on Thursday night, that rivalry will be renewed at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The person most responsible for the growth of women’s basketball in this country was Pat Summitt.

In January 1995, Summitt brought her top-ranked Lady Vols to Storrs, CT to play a nationally televised game against second-ranked UConn. At the time, Summitt’s Lady Vols had won three national championships and were the gold standard of the sport.

But that game, a 77-66 win by the Huskies, helped launch that program.  Summitt would do just about anything to grow the game of women’s basketball. The Lady Vols played any opponent at any time, including that game at Connecticut, even if it came at the expense of her team’s own success

Since that first game in 1995, UConn has won 11 national titles, the most in the history of the sport, while Tennessee sits at 8. UConn has won four of their six meetings with Tennessee in the NCAA tournament.

Maybe UConn would have reached the same levels without Tennessee, but there’s no doubt that the Lady Vols gave them instant credibility.

The rivalry has had its share of bad feelings and shady dealings. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma played the Steve Spurrier role to Summitt’s Phillip Fulmer. Auriemma would crack jokes and take shots at Summitt’s expense. He once called Tennessee the “Evil Empire.”

But the relationship between these coaches and programs was changed forever following the recruitment of Maya Moore during the 2006-2007 season.

Auriemma’s recruiting practices for Moore did not sit well with Summitt. So, following the 2007 game (A Tennessee 70-64 win, their 3rd in a row in the series), Summitt declined to sign the contract to play the following year. That ended that incarnation of the series, with UConn leading 13-9.

Summitt could have extended the series. After all, the Lady Vols would be loaded with talent the following season (they won Tennessee’s 7th and 8th national titles in 2007 and 2008) and likely would have extended the streak to four in a row with a game at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The classy Summitt refrained from commenting publicly, but Auriemma fumed for years.

That animosity cooled a bit following the retirement of Pat Summitt in 2012 at age 59 following a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

But Auriemma had another card to play.

In his role as U.S. Olympic Women’s coach, he chose to leave former Lady Vols standout Candace Parker, at the time one of the top 5 players on the planet, off the Team USA roster in 2016.

Parker’s Lady Vols beat Auriemma’s UConn three straight times between 2005 and 2007. And while Auriemma was not on the selection committee, it wasn’t difficult to explain the reason for Parker’s exclusion.

“I don’t like him. He doesn’t like me. We don’t like each other,” said Parker, a 2008 and 2012 gold medalist.

Auriemma also blamed Tennessee when the NCAA declined to waive the one-year transfer rule when guard Evina Westbrook left the Lady Vols to play for UConn.

In 2020 the rivalry was reborn following a 13-year hiatus, but it’s not the same. UConn is still a top tier program but haven’t won a national championship since 2016.

The “Curse of Candace” is real.

As is often the case, the sequel rarely lives up to the original. Way too many Caddyshack 2’s out there. Tennessee took their lumps with a very difficult early season schedule but have played very well as of late.

An upset on Thursday night might be just the spark this rivalry needs to make it appointment viewing once again.