Why the UConn-Tennessee series still matters
- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
UConn and Tennessee will meet for the 24th time on Thursday (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET), as the Huskies visit Knoxville for the first time in 15 years. The Lady Vols won that matchup 89-80 on Jan. 7, 2006, with 24,653 in attendance — the largest crowd at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena for a women’s basketball game.
We don’t know when these programs will face off again after this week. No announcement has been made as to whether the series, which resumed last year (a 60-45 UConn win in Hartford) after it ended in 2007, will continue. There is always the possibility they could meet in the NCAA tournament, although that hasn’t happened since the 2004 national championship game.
Let’s focus on this meeting, and the top five things we’re looking forward to from UConn-Tennessee 2021.
The 10-year anniversary of “We Back Pat”
Legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt announced her diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, in August 2011. That 2011-12 season, her last as head coach, marked the start of “We Back Pat” week. Held annually in women’s college basketball, the week raises funds for The Pat Summitt Foundation, which battles Alzheimer’s disease by rewarding grants for research, for education and awareness and for support for patients, families and caregivers.
The cause is what brought the UConn-Tennessee series back for games this year and last. No matter how bitter this rivalry got, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma has always spoken with admiration about Summitt’s fight against the deadly disease, and he and wife, Kathy, have been generous contributors to the foundation.
Among the progress made in the past decade is the Pat Summitt Clinic, which opened in 2016 at the University of Tennessee Medical Center and focuses on patient care and research.
“It’s a big deal for me, it’s a big deal for our program,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, who played for Summitt from 1995-99 and won three NCAA titles. “We continue to honor her legacy. What she means to women’s basketball, to me, to this program and this university … it’s really heavy sometimes when you think about it.”
Paige Bueckers on a national stage
Auriemma has been a bit less likely in recent years to say things that rile up people. But it still happens, such as earlier this season when he stated that if other coaches said they would rather have their freshmen than UConn guard Paige Bueckers, “I would tell you they’re only saying that to be nice to their own players.”
All coaches advocate for their players, but Auriemma can do it in ways that get under others’ skin. Of course, he is pretty confident that players to whom he gives that kind of praise are going to prove him right.
This season, however, there are standout freshmen elsewhere, and unbeaten UConn (7-0) has played just one ranked team (DePaul). Marquee nonconference games against Louisville and Baylor were canceled for COVID-19 reasons.
Some fans think the 5-foot-11 Bueckers, who leads the Huskies in scoring (18.9 PPG), assists (5.1 APG) and steals (2.7 SPG), hasn’t been tested enough yet to get as much acclaim as she has. On the other hand, how many superstars over how many decades has Auriemma coached? Are people really doubting if he knows for sure whether a player has the goods?
The great thing is that this stuff always gets settled on court. We’ll see how Bueckers performs against a team that has played four ranked opponents.
It’s a chance for both teams to prove something
That’s always the case when these two have played each other. But here’s what it means this year: Both teams have questions to answer. As mentioned, UConn has lost other marquee games to COVID-19. And so far, the Huskies have dominated Big East competition in their first year back in that league after never losing a game in seven years in the American Athletic Conference.
How good are the No. 4 Huskies? Beyond Bueckers, how impactful is their expansive freshman class, which now includes 2021 recruit Saylor Poffenbarger, who joined the program early? Juniors Christyn Williams (14.6 PPG, 3.4 APG) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (16.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG) joined Bueckers last week in ESPN’s updated rankings of the top 25 players in the country. Were they too low or too high? Will they provide leadership in what should be the Huskies’ toughest road challenge thus far?
Tennessee’s upper-class standouts, senior Rennia Davis (14.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG) and junior Rae Burrell (16.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG), are key to everything the Lady Vols do. What will we see from sophomore threats such as Jordan Horston (9.5 PPG, 4.0 APG) and Tamari Key (7.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG)? Tennessee also has a freshman starter who has played a big role in Marta Suárez (6.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG).
Tennessee moved into the Associated Press poll at No. 23 last week after beating Arkansas, but then lost at home Thursday to Georgia 67-66. The Lady Vols answered that Sunday with a decisive 82-56 victory at Alabama to move to 9-2 overall and 3-1 in the SEC.
Auriemma said the Lady Vols continue to play with some of the same trademarks of Summitt’s teams.
“[Kellie has] brought her own style,” he said, “but there’s still the size, and the emphasis on getting the ball in the lane and rebounding. Some of the same things Pat used to stress.”
Though UConn won last year’s meeting by 15 points, the Lady Vols led 31-28 at halftime. After the break, Tennessee scored just 14 points.
“We’ve got to play hard,” Harper said of Thursday’s game. “We have to execute, and executing is not just running a play. It’s seeing the floor to understand a mismatch, understanding angles, executing your defensive game plan.”
There is still heat to this rivalry
Summitt’s passing meant this matchup would never be the same, and it seems unlikely we’ll see Auriemma and Harper verbally jousting. But there are thousands of fans who have been invested in this rivalry from the beginning, and they don’t much like each other.
Add in that Auriemma is visiting the House That Pat Helped Build potentially after he has passed Summitt for second on the all-time victory list. They are tied at 1,098, and UConn hosts Butler on Tuesday.
And there’s Evina Westbrook’s return to Tennessee. The guard — she’s averaging 10.0 PPG and 4.0 APG — spent her first two seasons with the Lady Vols, then transferred to UConn. She sought an immediate transfer waiver last season, and Auriemma was furious with the NCAA when she didn’t get it. In the process of criticizing the NCAA, he alluded to what he said was a negative experience for Westbrook at Tennessee. Holly Warlick — not Harper — was the Lady Vols coach during Westbrook’s time in Knoxville, but it’s just one more thing to add to the Lady Vols fans’ antipathy.
Auriemma insists the rivalry, just “isn’t a big deal” anymore because things have changed so much. But on Monday, he said one thing remains the same.
“I still think going there is an incredibly difficult place to play,” Auriemma said, “and an even more difficult place to win. I don’t think that’s changed in all this time.”
The three biggest crowd for the Lady Vols at home were for UConn games in 2006, 2002 and 1998. All were over 24,000 fans, as was the No. 8 largest crowd, which was also against UConn.
Because of COVID-19 protocols, attendance this season for Tennessee home games is capped at 4,000 per game, which is about 18 percent of Thompson-Boling’s capacity. But you can be sure the fans present will try to give the Lady Vols as much of a homecourt advantage as possible.
Who adds their name to UConn-Tennessee lore?
When you think back on all the great players within both programs — we ranked the top 10 players in the rivalry last year — some of the signature moments of their careers came in this matchup. Think Sue Bird’s 25 points in her first UConn-Tennessee game in 2000. Diana Taurasi leading the Huskies over the Lady Vols in the 2003 and ’04 national championship games. Candace Parker helping Tennessee beat the Huskies in 2006 and ’07, including a dunk in the latter game.
In that last game in Knoxville in 2006, Sidney Spencer had 21 points to lead the Lady Vols. Parker, who had missed her first year (2004-05) at Tennessee with a knee injury, had 13 points. Alexis Hornbuckle nearly had a triple-double with 10 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists. Ann Strother led UConn with 25 points.
Two players in that 2006 game, Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks and UConn’s Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream, are still in the WNBA (although Montgomery opted not to play this past season).
We anticipate which players might make their marks this game, but we also could see some surprises.
Player of the week: Mya Hollingshed, Colorado
Hollingshed had a career-high 32 points, plus 10 rebounds and five steals, in the Buffaloes’ 77-72 overtime victory against No. 1 Stanford on Sunday. Coach Tara VanDerveer said the 6-foot-3 senior forward was too much for the Cardinal’s defense to stop. She was 12 of 24 from the field and 4 of 4 from the line, and played 44 minutes.
Hollingshed got some revenge for last February’s 69-66 loss to Stanford in Boulder, Colorado, where her turnover led to Kiana Williams’ 40-foot, game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Hollingshed, who is averaging 16.5 points and 8.7 rebounds this season, also had 14 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to USC on Monday, and 18 and nine in a victory over California on Friday.
“I believe in my game,” Hollingshed said. “I don’t think I’m playing my best; I think I’m actually just getting started.”
Shout-outs also go to Iowa State’s Ashley Joens, who had a combined 57 points and 27 rebounds in victories over Oklahoma State and No. 6 Baylor, and Florida’s Lavender Briggs, who had 41 points in a loss to Arkansas and 18 in a victory over Auburn.
Team of the week: Iowa State
It was a big week individually for Joens, and also for her team. First, the Cyclones handed Oklahoma State its first Big 12 loss this season, 90-80 on Wednesday. Then Saturday, Iowa State won for just the second time in program history at Baylor — the first was in 1997 — with a 75-71 victory.
“We came down here ready to compete,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said Saturday. “We’ve brought a lot of really good teams down here and haven’t done that. We did tonight. Ashley Joens on the biggest stage tonight was amazing.”
Iowa State is 9-4 overall and 5-1 in the Big 12, and we’ll see if it’s enough to return the Cyclones to the rankings. They started the season at No. 15 in the AP poll. They don’t have any bad losses, falling on the road at South Dakota State, Iowa and Texas, and losing at home to South Carolina.
Fennelly thought the 74-59 loss to the Longhorns on Jan. 3 was a good wake-up call for his team. The Cyclones’ rematches with Texas (Jan. 23) and Baylor (Jan. 31) are at Iowa State.
Coach of the week: Adia Barnes, Arizona
The Wildcats saw a 16-point lead in the third quarter get away on Jan. 10 when they lost in overtime at Washington State. So how did Barnes and her team respond to that disappointment?
They put the clamps on No. 10 Oregon on Thursday in a 57-41 victory that Ducks coach Kelly Graves said was one of the worst offensive performances he has seen from one of his teams. A lot of credit for that goes to the Wildcats’ non-stop pressure defense. Barnes got them to commit to that, and it paid off.
No. 11 Arizona followed that with a 67-51 victory over Oregon State on Sunday in another strong defensive performance. The Wildcats held Oregon to 32.6 percent shooting from the field and forced 23 turnovers, while limiting Oregon State to 36.7 percent with 19 turnovers.
Win of the week: Colorado
The Buffaloes’ victory over Stanford on Sunday marked the second year in a row that the Cardinal lost to an unranked team while being No. 1. In December 2019, then-No. 1 Stanford fell at Texas; the Longhorns were 6-4 at that time and on the way to a 19-11 record.
Colorado came into this game 5-6. The Buffs had not beaten Stanford since the 2002 NCAA tournament, and had been to the Big Dance only once (2013) since 2004. That said, the Buffs played the Cardinal close enough last season — an eight-point overtime loss at Stanford and a three-point loss at Colorado — that they really did think they had a chance Sunday.
They were right: They shook up the women’s basketball world, taking the Cardinal from the undefeated ranks.
“It means a lot for all of us,” Buffs coach JR Payne said. “Especially look to someone like Mya Hollingshed, who has been here four years, and they haven’t been the easiest years. I’m just happy for our entire ball club.”
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