For the first time in 13 years, the women's basketball teams of the University of Connecticut and the University of Tennessee have played each other, renewing a storied rivalry that shaped the sport at the college level.
The game last week in Hartford, Conn., ended the long suspension of the rivalry between the two powerhouses. UConn's Huskies and the Lady Vols of Tennessee have met in the championship game of the NCAA tournament four times, each ending in a UConn victory, including the Huskies' first championship in 1995.
UConn has 11 national championships to its name, while Tennessee has eight. No other Division I program has more than three.
When they first started to clash on the national stage in the ‘90s, UConn’s Coach Geno Auriemma and Tenessee’s Pat Summitt were the best of adversaries. The games were physical, the stakes were high and the basketball was good. It helped to put women’s basketball on another level when the game was just starting to capture the nation’s attention.
“Women’s college basketball, I think, was a thing that people knew existed and that there were, you know, certain star players … like Cheryl Miller or maybe Sheryl Swoopes, who had previously gained some traction in the national consciousness," said Cat Ariail, a history lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University who studies the history of women’s sports and writes for Swish Appeal, a website focused on women’s basketball.
"Then UConn and Tennessee came along, these two teams that, … I think, had striking similarities and striking differences that … kind of introduced what women’s basketball, women’s sports, women’s college sports, could be for people in the United States and, I guess, globally, as well,” Arial added.
The schools attracted the best players in the country — names like future WNBA stars Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, who Ariail said brought a modern skill set with them to the game.
Other schools tried to emulate that recipe.
"UConn and Tennessee both showed that, ‘OK, if you invest in women’s basketball, you can attract a passionate fan base, you can attract and build a strong program that can accrue to your university," Ariail said.
The success and popularity UConn had — which was due in part to its back-and-forth with the Lady Volunteers — even helped to open the door for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun to take root in the state, according to Sun Head Coach Curt Miller.
“Obviously, we look at Connecticut as the women’s basketball capital of the world, and because of the success of the UConn Huskies, [it] allowed our franchise, allowed our ownership group, to be the first independently-owned WNBA franchise in the league," Miller said. "That’s how popular women’s basketball was in the state of Connecticut.”
Even though the two schools last met in 2007, the rivalry still had an impact on college players of today.
“I was a huge UConn fan growing up," said UConn senior guard Molly Bent, who grew up on Cape Cod and is the only player from New England currently on the roster. "I watched all their games, especially when I started getting to middle school and high school. I mean, you hear about UConn-Tennessee, and we have pictures even here of those rivalry games. And it’s just incredible to be a part of it.”
There's still some bad blood left in the fan bases. UConn senior guard Crystal Dangerfield, who is from Tennessee, received some flak for her decision to sign with the Huskies before she even stepped on campus.
"I remember warming up for a high school game and I had a couple of grown men sitting on the front row giving me crap about it," Dangerfield told reporters the day before last week's game. "So I mean, it still lives on. And obviously, I made the decision to come here and I don't regret that decision."
Still, since the passing of Pat Summitt in 2016 after her diagnosis with Alzheimer's in 2011, there had been a call for both sides to re-ignite the fire that once burned.
For at least one half, that’s what it looked like last Thursday as Tennessee took advantage of some uncharacteristic UConn mistakes to go into halftime with a 31-28 lead. But the Huskies suffocated the Lady Vols after the break, holding them to only 14 points in the second half to finish with a 60-45 win.
After the game, a reporter asked Tennessee Head Coach Kellie Harper, who spent her playing days with the Lady Vols during the golden days of the rivalry with UConn, if this new version of UConn-Tennessee is a rivalry.
“Feels like it, to me. Because that’s just the nature of it," Harper said. "You know, it’s the Tennessee-UConn game. It’s just a big deal. It feels like a rivalry game to me.”
But even if UConn-Tennessee is back, one person key to the game — and women’s basketball — won’t be back to see it: Pat Summitt. It was a fact that weighed on UConn's Coach Geno Auriemma after the contest, a portion of the proceeds from which went to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Pat Summitt Foundation. The Huskies also auctioned off their black game uniforms to benefit the foundation.
“Yeah, it wasn’t the same. I miss … I miss having her there," said a somber Auriemma, who helped present a $10,000 check from UConn to the Pat Summitt Foundation at halftime, in the post-game news conference. "I miss looking forward to having her there. I didn’t miss having to coach against her. But I miss looking forward to it. For sure, for sure.”
UConn not playing Tennessee is like the Boston Celtics not playing the Los Angeles Lakers. But those players, coaches and programs of years past helped shape women’s basketball today. And with the teams set to meet again next season in Knoxville, Tenn., a new chapter is ready to be written in one of the game's great traditions.