The Tennessee Lady Vols’ rivalry with the University of Connecticut Lady Huskies is like no other in the history of women’s basketball—and perhaps all of college sports—not only for its unlikely origin but also for what it has meant for the game.
The rivalry is unique because rather than being based in geographic proximity (Tennessee and UConn are more than 800 miles apart), it was the two teams’ massive success that spurred the series.
That first game wasn’t even supposed to happen. It was originally supposed to be played between UConn and North Carolina, but the Tar Heels backed out to avoid a long road trip in the middle of conference play.
When looking for a replacement, UConn called Pat Summitt, a coach they knew wouldn’t pass up the chance to take on a tough opponent. And she didn’t turn down the opportunity. Summitt was later quoted as saying she took on the challenge “for the good of the game.”
“She would take on any team, anytime, anywhere,” said John Tuite, who has been the voice of UConn athletics since the late 1980s. “That’s why she’s the pioneer of basketball that she was.”
In 1995, Tennessee (No. 1) faced UConn (No. 2) in Storrs, Connecticut, in the first meeting of a home-and-home series between the two teams. The game was one of the most highly anticipated events of the year, drawing a sellout crowd and becoming the first women’s basketball game to be nationally televised on ESPN.
“That particular game is still talked about as one of the all-time electric atmospheres ever in Gampel Pavilion,” said Tuite.
Connecticut won that first highly competitive matchup, and from there a rivalry was born.
At the time of the first meeting, the two teams were at the pinnacle of women’s basketball. Led by the legendary Summitt, the Lady Vols won three NCAA tournament championships across the late ’80s and early ’90s. Geno Auriemma, head coach of the Huskies, was a relatively new coach chasing Summitt’s success.
The rivalry was focused as much on the sidelines as on the court.
Summitt, who ended her coaching career as the winningest coach in all of men’s or women’s college basketball, had already solidified her place as one of the greatest coaches of all time, and Auriemma was on his way to the same success. The two coaches were the most notable in women’s basketball, and they had strong feelings toward each other. At one time he even referred to Tennessee as the “Evil Empire.”
The games themselves were the fire, but the two legendary coaches were the gasoline that fueled it.
Since that first game in 1995, there have been some memorable meetings between the Lady Vols and the Huskies. Here are a few of the biggest moments in the rivalry’s history.
AURIEMMA'S FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP
Just three months after the first meeting between Tennessee and UConn, the two teams met again in the national championship game after the Lady Vols defeated the University of Georgia and the Huskies defeated Stanford University.
UConn won the game 70–64, and it was the first of seven postseason meetings between the two teams. The win was the first of what would become 11 national championship titles for Auriemma’s teams.
“They played highly watchable and competitive basketball,” Tuite said. “The fact that it was No. 1 vs. No. 2, it had all the rivalry earmarks of the old-school dynasty against the up and comers—that added to it.”
Just a season after UConn defeated Tennessee in the national championship, Summitt and the Lady Vols got their revenge, defeating the Huskies in the Final Four on their way to a national championship win over Georgia.
The Final Four game was an instant classic, going into overtime after UConn’s Nykesha Sales hit a game-tying three with seconds remaining. In overtime, Lady Vols guard Michelle Marciniak hit a pair of clutch free throws to secure the win.
The championship was Summitt’s fourth and started a three-year span of domination from Tennessee.
In 1997, UConn defeated Tennessee by double digits in the regular season matchup, but it wouldn’t be the last time the two teams saw each other that season.
After heading into the season with great expectations, the Lady Vols finished the regular season 21–9 after injuries piled up all year.
The Lady Vols, a No. 3 seed, and the Huskies, a No. 1 seed, were placed in the same region in the NCAA tournament, and to no one’s surprise they faced off in the Elite 8. UConn seemed to be the favorite heading into the game after finishing off the regular season undefeated and destroying its competition on its way to the Elite 8.
But the Lady Vols didn’t care that they were the underdog as they cruised to a 10-point win behind Chamique Holdsclaw’s 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Tennessee went on to defeat Notre Dame in the Final Four and Old Dominion in the championship game, the second championship in the Lady Vols’ three-peat from 1996 to 1998.
SUMMITT'S FINAL MEETING
Summitt had her final meeting with UConn in January 2007, and she came out on top one last time against her rival of more than 12 years.
Auriemma had led the Huskies to an undefeated record through the first few months of the season, but in their annual meeting, Summitt had plans to end that perfection.
The win came behind a huge performance from Lady Vol legend and current WNBA star Candace Parker.
Parker recorded 30 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocks to lead Tennessee past UConn 70–64. She also had the sixth dunk of her career. She was quoted after the game as saying, “I wanted to have a chance to dunk on Connecticut’s court. And I did.”
Summitt and the Lady Vols rode the momentum of that win to another national championship later that season.
After a 12-year hiatus, which included the retirement and death of Summitt in 2016 due to early onset Alzheimer’s disease, it was announced that Tennessee and UConn would once again face off in 2020 with former Lady Vol Kellie Harper leading the team. The game was a part of We Back Pat Week—an annual event that brings awareness to the Pat Summitt Foundation, which works to fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
“I am happy to have the Lady Vols back on our schedule and am thrilled that proceeds to our games will benefit such an important endeavor like the Pat Summitt Foundation,” Auriemma said in a statement regarding the game.
UConn won the 2020 game and has had Tennessee’s number since the renewal of the rivalry, but the Lady Vols are looking to ride their current hot streak heading into the game on January 26.
LEGACY IN WOMEN'S BASKETBALL
Regardless of who got the last laugh or who came out on top with more wins, what the Tennessee vs. UConn rivalry did for women’s basketball is undeniable.
That first game led to much more recognition of women’s basketball, and subsequent matchups garnered sellout crowds and skyrocketing TV ratings.
Now Harper has another chance to get a win over UConn. The roles in the rivalry have reversed since the early days, but it remains one of the most iconic games in all of college sports.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to have a great atmosphere and a great environment to showcase women’s basketball at this elite level,” Harper said. “I know our team is excited—who wouldn’t be? Everybody wants to play in that kind of environment with that atmosphere.”
Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics