By Arnie Leshin
Just to riminess on University of Connecticut’s return to Tennessee in a renewal of the women’s basketball long time rivalry.
To be exact it was a long rivalry when Volunteers’ long-time head coach Pat Summit decided to drop Geno Auriemma’s team from her schedule.
Summit, who took over at Tennessee in 1979 and who retired in 2012 after a bout with Alsymers Disease, had won seven of her eight national championships before Auriemma came on the scene. Her last was in the 2007-08 season, the first in 1983.
After that came hoisting the NCAA championship trophy in 1985, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1994 and 1997. She passed away in 2016.
In 1995, Auriemma coached the Huskies to his first title via an undefeated campaign. Ten more have followed, a national record surpassing John Wooden’s total as men’s coach at UCLA.
But apparently, the legendary Summit didn’t want to face UConn again. After she retired as coach, the schools did play twice more and the Huskies won home and away games. The last came Thursday night before a sellout crowd of 14,703 Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
It was a testy game, a tight officiating game, with Auriemma, while being interviewed by Holly Rowe at halftime, firing back when Rowe asked how he would address the first half when his team led by four.
Auriemma lashed out: “How do I address it? How do I address it? You don’t address it, this is what you get when you come down here!
True, his fifth-ranked team did hold a slim lead, but it also faced a considerable deficit in trips to the charity stripe. UConn was awarded just a pair of free throws those first two quarters while the home side Volunteers had taken a dozen.
Yes, women’s college basketball’s most legendary rivalry game never fails to provide the drama. And this year was no exception.
But after all was said and done and Auriemma calmed down some, it was his Huskies increasing their intermission advantage with several runs and Tennessee, with all the loud and noisy support, kept making threats.
The Vols were playing tight defense and had cut an 11-point gap down to 58-54 and then 60-58 midway though the fourth quarter as the crowd got to a high pitch. But after two timeouts, the turnout began fading as once again Geno the genus’ team surged again.
From the two-point lead, it became totally teamwork, back door plays that became baskets and defensive fouls, outside shots that included short jumpers and 3s, and soon it was over, a commanding 84-67 trouncing of the home team.
Heck, Auriemma even had a hug afterwards for the Vols’ head coach as the coaches and players did the usual handshakes, high fives and hugs.
The 17-point win was the largest margin of victory in a true road game by either team in the series history. The Huskies are now 17-9 all-time against Tennessee, with their last loss coming on Jan. 6, 2007, but this was also the fourth straight turned in by Auriemma’s ladies.
“I don’t know if the rivalry is the same,” he said in the postgame.
“I don’t know that you can ever recreate rivalries the way they used to be. Yeah, there’s memories of this place, it’s a great environment, they really appreciate the game here, so I don’t know that it’s about what it used to be, but it’s still as good if not better than any other non-conference match-up you can play anywhere.”
Amen to next season when the teams play in Connecticut before no doubt a sellout crowd.