UConn. Tennessee. A rivalry as old as time. Well, as old as 1995, but you get the point.
UConn versus Tennessee isn’t just a normal rivalry. No, it’s a rivalry that reshaped the landscape of women’s college basketball forever.
“The Tennessee-Connecticut game from 1995 until it ended filled a tremendous void that didn’t exist in women’s basketball,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “For as much as you want to say women’s basketball had great rivalries, no they didn’t. They may have had great games, they may have had great skirmishes, but Tennessee never lost. They may have lost a game, but they never lost. They were here, and everybody took turns snapping at their heels, but nobody ever knocked them off their pedestal. So that 1995 game started an intense rivalry where we did knock them off, and that caused a big stir. And then we fought for that spot for a long time, and they won a bunch, and we won a bunch, and it became you know, ‘Clash of the Titans’ so to speak.”
The Huskies and the Volunteers played 22 times from 1995 to 2007, with UConn coming out on top in 13 of the contests.
UConn is currently on a three-game losing streak, falling to Tennessee by six in January of 2007 and never playing since.
“It was just such a compelling series, and all the drama that went with who the coaches were, who the players were,” Auriemma said. “Every game had the highest stakes, whether it was a regular season game or whether it was a postseason game, a national championship game. Everything was all laid out, everything was perfectly aligned that all you needed was just two great teams every year battling to see who was gonna be the best.”
However, Auriemma doesn’t see the same national appeal as there once was. The teams have just changed so much over the years, as they’re no longer two of the best teams in the country. He said that while this might be considered a big rivalry game due to the nostalgia factor, UConn’s game in a few weeks versus Oregon is the real biggest game of the season.
“I don’t think that’s there anymore, and I don’t think that’ll ever come back, and I don’t think that it can come back because Oregon and Oregon State’s a great game, so when those guys play that’s a huge game, nationally,” Auriemma said. “It has huge national implications. When we play South Carolina when Baylor plays South Carolina … now, is any of that as big as our Tennessee game was? No. There may never be anything like that, although our series with Notre Dame was pretty damn close, because every game meant so much.”
Heading into the game, Tennessee is the No. 23 ranked team in the country, boasting a 15-3 record with their losses coming at the hands of Texas, Stanford and Kentucky, three teams that are averaging just under four losses apiece.
Rennia Davis leads the team with 17.3 points per game on 49% shooting from the field and 33% from three, as the 6-foot-2 guard/forward combo and UConn’s Megan Walker will likely battle it out all night long. Walker, a 6-foot-1 forward, leads the Huskies with 20.5 points per game on 47.1% shooting from the field and 44% shooting from three.
As a team, Tennessee holds a great size advantage, being able to start someone as tall or taller than UConn at all five positions on the floor. They have just one person on their roster who is listed under six feet tall, and she is averaging just the eighth-most minutes of all players who have played in at least half of their games.
Not only are they taller, but they have a deeper bench too. Not one person on their team is averaging over 30 minutes per game, compared to three on UConn. Of those who have played in a significant number of games, eight of them are averaging at least 15 minutes, compared to six on UConn.
Yes, this game might not have the magnitude of the UConn-Tennessee matchups from years past, but while that may sound like a negative, Auriemma doesn’t see it that way.
“That game will be really big Thursday night, and by Saturday everybody will forget about it and move on to the next thing,” Auriemma said. “Back then that game was big from a month before to a month after, it’s just not there anymore. And that’s okay too, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it should be there. I think if we’re back to that in the country, ‘Hey, everybody in America is waiting for the Connecticut-Tennessee game,’ then we haven’t made the progress we think we’ve made.”
First tip is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the XL Center in Hartford, and UConn is advertising it as a whiteout, so fans, wear white!