WOMENS BASKETBALL

Here's a look at the Tennessee Lady Vols vs Connecticut women's basketball rivalry

Will Backus
Knoxville News Sentinel

The Tennessee women's basketball team will play UConn for the first time since 2007 on Thursday night in Hartford, Connecticut.

There have been 22 meetings between the programs, and No. 5 UConn (16-1) holds a 13-9 advantage. The No. 23 Lady Vols (15-3) won the last three.

Here's a timeline of significant events in the series history.

The origins

Tennessee and UConn first met on Jan. 16, 1995, in Storrs, Connecticut. At the time, the Huskies were an up-and-coming program, with a 12-0 record and ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Lady Vols were No. 1 with a 16-0 mark.

UConn won 77-66 and earned the program's first No. 1 ranking. Less than three months later,  UConn defeated Tennessee 70-64 to win its first national championship and finished the season 35-0. 

The end?

After the 2006-07 season, then-Tennessee coach Pat Summitt elected to cancel the series because, according to UConn coach Geno Auriemma, she accused the Huskies of a recruiting violation. 

In 2010, Summitt confirmed Auriemma's accusations at the SEC Media Day. After discussing recruiting violations, she said, "I probably had Connecticut on my mind. There's a reason we don't play them."

UT sent a letter to the SEC accusing UConn of committing 11 recruiting violations over a stretch of five months in 2006. The Huskies were ruled to have committed only one of those violations, when they set up a tour of ESPN for recruit Maya Moore, who was choosing between UConn and Tennessee. 

In 2014, two years after Summitt retired because of early onset Alzheimer's, Auriemma shunned the notion that the two programs had made an effort to bring the series back, saying, "I really don’t give two (expletive) if we ever play them again, to be honest with you.”

UT senior Kara Lawson leaves the court after loosing the National Championship game to UConn 73-68.
2003

A rivalry renewed

On Aug. 14, 2018, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that the storied rivalry would be renewed. 

A home-and-home series was set up, with UConn hosting the first game in the 2019-20 season and the second game to be played in Knoxville in 2020-21. 

The series was renewed under UT coach Holly Warlick. Kellie Harper will be the first Tennessee coach to face UConn since Summitt, however, as Warlick was fired in March. 

Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and coach Geno Auriemma of Connecticut meet before the National Championship game of the NCAA Women's Final Four Tournament at the New Orleans Arena on April 6, 2004, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Auriemma ramps up the intensity

Auriemma has been generating a lot of interest for Thursday's matchup, whether intentionally or not. 

He downplayed the significance and relevance of Tennessee's program as a whole during an interview in May. 

"I never understood the big to-do about us playing Tennessee again," he told the Connecticut Post. "Yeah, the name is the same, but nothing else is the same. It’s almost like they’re any other school now.”

The most recent fireworks sprouted from the transfer of former Lady Vols star guard Evina Westbrook, who left to play for the Huskies during the offseason. She was denied her waiver and subsequent appeal by the NCAA, meaning that she's having to sit this season out. 

It led Auriemma to criticize the culture and environment at Tennessee following a win over Vanderbilt on Nov. 11.

"The kid's in an environment that's not necessarily healthy," he said. "An environment that if you knew what the environment was ... you would not want your kid in that environment." 

Harper, who faced UConn six times as a point guard under Summitt from 1995-99, going 4-2, brushed off the barb three days later. .

"The 12 players that I work with are bought in," she said. "From my viewpoint, Tennessee is a great place to be a student athlete." 

The rest of the series

Jan. 6, 1996: UConn earned a third-straight victory, 59-53, in the first game played in Knoxville between the two teams.

March 29, 1996: Tennessee earned its first victory over UConn, 88-83 in overtime, in the Final Four on the way to the national championship.

Jan. 5, 1997: UConn cruised to a 72-57 victory in Storrs.

March 24, 1997: With a chance at the Final Four on the line, the Lady Vols avenged a regular-season loss and upset UConn 91-81 in the Elite Eight. They would go on to win the national championship. 

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, left, reacts with her team as they pull ahead in the final minutes against Connecticut to win, 68-67, in Hartford, Conn., on Jan. 8, 2005.

Jan. 3, 1998: Tennessee used an 84-69 victory over No. 3 UConn as a large stepping stone on the way to a 39-0 season and a third consecutive national championship. 

Jan. 10, 1999: Chamique Holdsclaw and Semeka Randall each scored 25 points to lift Tennessee 92-81.

Jan. 8, 2000: A poor 33.8% shooting mark doomed Tennessee in a 74-67 loss. 

Feb. 2, 2000: With 4.4 seconds left, Randall drained a game-winning shot to hand UConn its only loss of the season, 72-71. 

April 2, 2000: The Huskies got the better of the Lady Vols in their second national championship showdown, 71-52.

Dec. 30, 2000: In the fourth meeting in a calendar year, Sue Bird hit a pair of clutch free throws to secure an 81-76 victory for UConn. 

Feb. 1, 2001: Gwen Jackson led Tennessee with 28 points and 14 rebounds in a  92-88 victory. 

Jan. 5, 2002: Diana Taurasi scored 32 points to lead UConn to an 86-72 trouncing of the Lady Vols.

March 29, 2002: In front of the largest crowd in women's college basketball history (29,619), the Huskies earned their largest margin of victory in the series in a 79-56 rout. 

Jan. 4, 2003: Taurasi hit a clutch 3-pointer in overtime and UConn earned its 51st straight victory, 63-62. 

April 8, 2003: In another national championship showdown, Taurasi scored 28 points and paved the way for a 73-68 win.

Feb. 5, 2004: UConn cruised past Tennessee 81-67 to continue its streak of dominance. 

April 6, 2004: Taurasi was the high scorer again for UConn to beat Tennessee 70-61 for a second straight national championship. 

Jan. 8, 2005: Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood converted on a three-point play to help Tennessee snap a six-game losing skid to UConn, 68-67.

Jan. 7, 2006: Tennessee earned its first win over UConn in Knoxville in five years, 89-80, and a Thompson-Boling Arena Lady Vols attendance record of 24,653 was set.

Jan. 6, 2007: Candace Parker dropped 30 points, and dunked in the second half, to cap off a three-game series win streak for the Lady Vols, 70-64.