One of college basketball’s best rivalries is back as the Connecticut Huskies and Tennessee Volunteers women’s teams are set to play their first matchup in what will be 13 years on January 23, 2020. The game will be part of home-and-home series that will see the Vols travel to Storrs, Connecticut in 2020, and vice-a-versa in 2021. A portion of the proceeds from both games will be donated to the Pat Summitt Foundation in honor of the former Vols coach who died in 2016 from early on-set dementia, Alzheimers type.
The teams teased the series on their Twitter accounts on Tuesday:
This series is huge for both the revival of a heated rivalry and its potential in increasing viewership to the women’s college game. It’ll also break a stalemate from the Maya Moore controversy, which in part ended the teams from scheduling each other in non-conference play.
What made the Connecticut vs. Tennessee rivalry special?
Huskies vs. Vols was one of sports’ biggest duels, packed with star power in its prime. It was led by the school’s head coaches: The established legend, Pat Summit, and the young coach on the rise, Geno Auriemma.
From 1995 to 2007, Auriemma and Summitt led the charge on 22 matchups against each other while their teams dominated the college basketball scene.
Over the 13-year span, nine NCAA Tournament championships were won between both teams: Five by Connecticut and Four by Tennessee. The talent kept flowing. And four of those championships were one with one team defeating the other (Connecticut three times vs. Tennessee once.) Auriemma and Summitt’s teams WERE college basketball.
Connecticut won the head-to-head series over that stretch, 13-9, in games that featured WNBA legends-to be in Rebecca Lobo (Huskies) Sue Bird (Huskies), Diana Taurasi (Huskies), Swin Cash (Huskies), Kara Lawson (Vols), Chamique Holdsclaw (Vols), Tamika Catchings (Vols) and Candace Parker (Vols).
But the rivalry ended abruptly.
Maya Moore’s commitment to UConn was the tipping point
Summitt and Auriemma openly disliked each other during their team’s rivalry, which added to the spiciness of it all, but it finally became too much.
Following Moore’s commitment to Connecticut over Tennessee (where she’d become a two-time Player of the Year), the University of Tennessee alleged that the Huskies had a pattern of committing recruitment violations, according to ESPN’s Shelly Smith. The SEC investigated the Connecticut program, and eventually it was determined the Huskies committed a secondary rules violation — arranging a tour at the ESPN headquarters for Moore and her mother, according to Smith.
It’s up in the air how much of an impact the visit had on her recruitment, but Moore’s commitment was crucial. She’d lead the Huskies to back-to-back titles.
Summitt canceled the series between the teams after the allegations, and neither coach spoke about what specifically happened on the record.
The most heated comment came from Auriemma when, according to ESPN, he told the Hartford Courant:
“I think she should just come out and say she’s not playing us because she hates my guts. And I think people would buy that. Then everyone [who seeks a reason] would be happy. She should just say that [Geno is] a dope, a smart-ass and then everyone could say that they agree with her.”
Summitt continually deflected questions about the series back to Auriemma, and that’s how the rivalry essentially ended.
But this renewal could be huge for Tennessee’s program and women’s hoops
Since Summitt’s passing, her assistant, Holly Warlick has taken the reins and things haven’t been quite the same. The team hasn’t returned to the Final Four, and in 2016, lost a top in-state recruit, Crystal Dangerfield, to UConn.
Meanwhile, Auriemma’s team has been dominant, winning six championships in the 11 years since the rivalry ended.
This series could be a huge step in regaining the fuel Tennessee once had as a true powerhouse in the women’s college basketball scope. The Vols have been solid over the last decade, but far from dominant like the past. The team lost in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
But Tennessee is adding three top-50 recruits to a team that landed three of ESPN’s top-11 a year ago. All three of those top-11 recruits made large contributions as freshmen: Guard/forward Rennia Davis averaged 12 points and eight rebounds as a starter, and Evina Westbrook averaged eight points and four assists as a starter. They’ll both be juniors when the rivalry returns and could play with ESPN’s No. 10 2018 recruit, Zarielle Green in the backcourt.
Needless to say, Connecticut’s recruiting has been stellar too. The team added the No. 1 player by ESPN’s metric in both 2017 and 2018. Megan Walker played a small role behind a stacked lineup as a freshman, averaging six points and three rebounds in 15 minutes, but she’ll grow alongside 2018 No. 1 recruit Christyn Williams and No. 5 recruit Olivia Nelson-Ododa, whose name blew up after she dunked in a dunk contest.
How quickly the rivalry will feel as one without Summitt in the arena is to be determined, but the history of both programs could provide the fuel it needs to push this series back to where it should be.
The talent will certainly be there.