Once women's basketball's fiercest rivalry, can magic of Lady Vols vs. UConn be recreated?

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Pat Summitt didn’t shy away from playing a challenging schedule.

By the time the legendary women's basketball coach at Tennessee reached a date with Connecticut in January 1995, the Lady Vols had already played eight ranked opponents.

Still, this game had the air of something bigger.

No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Established power against rising challenger.

Star-studded rosters.

A national television audience.

“The intensity was so thick, it was like you could cut it with a knife. You could feel it,” said former Lady Vols center Pashen Thompson, a sophomore in that 1995 game. “It was so intense, but yet, it was exciting, because we knew that was going to be the game that everyone in America was going to be watching.”

The Huskies won 77-66 in Storrs, Connecticut, to begin what would become the fiercest rivalry in women’s college basketball. The rivalry went dormant following a 2007 meeting, after the relationship between Summitt and UConn coach Geno Auriemma deteriorated.

The series will renew Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), when the No. 23 Lady Vols (15-3) play No. 5 UConn (16-1) in Hartford. The Huskies will make the return trip to Knoxville next season.

What happens to the rivalry after this two-year series — scheduled, in part, to raise proceeds for the Pat Summitt Foundation, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame — is unclear.

Opinions vary on whether the rivalry should continue or whether the time has passed for a rivalry that, in its heyday, was the biggest thing going in women’s basketball.

UConn controlled early rivalry games with the Lady Vols

The first matchup in 1995 sold out months in advance.

The 8,241 in attendance included Connecticut’s U.S. Senators Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman. They were treated to a UConn lineup that included Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters going up against a Lady Vols crew headlined by Nikki McCray, Dana Johnson and Michelle Marciniak.

More than 120 media members were on hand. ESPN televised the game.

Former News Sentinel sportswriter Dan Fleser, who has covered the Lady Vols for 31 years, grew accustomed to circus-like atmospheres for Tennessee road games.

But this, Fleser said, was on another level.

“When I got into the arena, I was like, ‘Holy cow,’ " Fleser said. 

UConn prevailed behind Wolters’ 18 points and five blocks and Rizzotti’s 17 points and five steals. Afterward, Aretha Franklin's "Respect" blared at Gampel Pavilion.

That’s not the loss that eats at former Lady Vols forward Abby Conklin, who was a sophomore that season.

Rather, it was their meeting two and a half months later in the Final Four in Minneapolis, where the Huskies won 70-64 en route to their first national title.

“I think about that all the time,” Conklin said, “because I’m always like, ‘Ugh, if we had not lost that first title to them, would they be where they are now?’ I always just wonder."

The 1995 championship became the first of UConn’s 11 national titles.

Tennessee has eight national titles, all under Summitt.

Lady Vols gain revenge

UConn took a 3-0 series lead when it beat Tennessee in January 1996 in Knoxville to end UT's 69-game home winning streak. Thompson called that 59-53 loss “very embarrassing,” and one that Summitt didn’t take lightly.

“Practice after that with Pat was pretty bad,” Thompson said.

It may have looked like the power pendulum was swinging in UConn’s direction, but Tennessee wasn’t ready to relinquish its grip.

“We had to redeem ourselves,” Thompson said. “We had to get our name back.”

Tennessee did so later that year with an 88-83 overtime victory over UConn in the Final Four, led by Marciniak’s 21 points and seven rebounds. The Lady Vols beat Georgia in the national championship — the first of three straight national titles.

First-year Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper played on each of those three national title teams. She went 4-2 against UConn during her playing career, sitting out one of those losses with an injury.

Harper, who played point guard for the Lady Vols as Kellie Jolly, has fondest memories of a 1997 Elite Eight matchup.

Harper had torn her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in October but made a speedy recovery in time for the postseason. Tennessee had 10 losses when it met UConn in the regional final in Iowa City, Iowa.

As Conklin tells it, Auriemma “had already sweated through his shirt before warmups had started.”

Harper’s 19 points fueled the upset.

“We played terrific that game,” Harper said.

Of the 22 all-time meetings — UConn leads the series 13-9 — seven came in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the frequent postseason matchups, the game that stands out most to Fleser was Tennessee’s 72-71 victory on Feb. 2, 2000. The Lady Vols won in Storrs thanks to Semeka Randall’s jumper with 4.4 seconds remaining. 

It was a microcosm of a rivalry in which 10 of the matchups were decided by six points or fewer.

“They were always decided by kids making shots,” said Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who wrote three books with Summitt. “That’s what was so great about it. They were decided by makes, not misses.”

Whenever the teams met, they could expect to play in front of a full house, and the games reached a broader audience than the sport was accustomed to.

“People who didn’t watch basketball, women’s basketball, day in and day out, had this game on their calendar," said Joan Cronan, who was Tennessee’s women’s athletics director from 1983-2012. "I think once people began to see a really high caliber of basketball, people became more interested in other games. So, yeah, I think it had an impact on the history of women’s basketball.”

Should rivalry continue?

Tennessee vs. UConn, in its prime, had everything a rivalry needs.

The sport’s best players.

Passionate fan bases.

Historically great coaches who had contrasting styles — Summitt with her focus on defense, physicality and rebounding and Auriemma with his exciting brand of offense.

Off-the-court drama, whether it be Auriemma’s barbs — he infamously referred to Tennessee as “the Evil Empire” — or the controversy surrounding Maya Moore’s recruitment.

“Each game carried a lot of weight," Auriemma said. "There was always 10 players on the floor that were going to be great WNBA players.”

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, left, shakes hand with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma before their women's college basketball  game in this Jan. 7, 2006 file photo in Knoxville, Tenn. The two schools meet against this weekend.

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

The 13-year hiatus, more parity in women’s basketball and a shift in the sport’s power structure, coupled with the retirement and death of Summitt, undeniably changes this rivalry.

Auriemma is lukewarm on whether he’d like to see the series continue beyond next season.

“Everything's like a Broadway show, you know,” Auriemma said. “It has its run and then it's got to end. It ended, and I don't know that you're going to get that back. And I think college basketball is doing pretty damn good without it.”

"We have a two-game series,” he added. “If it goes beyond that, great. If it doesn't, that's just the way it is. Anymore, with the way the game has grown in the last five, six, seven, eight, 10 years, there's so many great matchups now, compelling matchups, that I don't know that Connecticut-Tennessee carries the same significance that it did years ago.

“I don't feel it. Our fans don't feel it back home. Otherwise that game would've been sold out six months ago, and it's not. So, it's just different now. It just feels different.”

Harper said she hasn’t formed an opinion yet on whether the series should continue past the current contract. She has felt excitement building for the rivalry’s rebirth, though.

“I’ve heard from several of my former teammates, in particular, about this game,” Harper said. “Obviously there was a pretty good rivalry. Former players have had this one circled for a while. They have high hopes and will be watching it diligently.”

Thompson, Harper’s former teammate, said she still gets butterflies in her stomach when she thinks about playing UConn. She’d like to see the rivalry pick up.

Not all former Lady Vols feel that way, however.

“I don’t think we should ever play them again,” Conklin said. “I think Geno’s an ass, to be honest.”

Spoken like a true rival.

Commercial Appeal sportswriter Jason Munz contributed to this story.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.