“We want UConn.”
Those were the fighting words of the Villanova University marching band following its women’s basketball team’s win against the Seton Hall University Pirates in the Big East Tournament semifinals. The Wildcats were looking to claim the automatic bid with a win in the championship against a team they already beat, the University of Connecticut Huskies.
The two schools combined for a showing of the last two Big East Players of the Year, Paige Bueckers and Maddy Siegrist, and Big East Defensive Player of the Year winners, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Nika Muhl. The Huskies were weakened by injury in their first meeting, but with Bueckers healthy, the stakes were set for a legendary brawl.
UConn ended up winning that title bout 70-40, but what the Huskies did after helped showcase the reignition of this rivalry. Not long after the final buzzer, players on the women’s basketball team allegedly chanted “we want UConn” in response to Villanova’s bold statement the night prior. UConn basketball fans may call it a revenge statement, but everyone else saw it as a sign of a rivalry reborn.
UConn has had prominent rivalries with schools such as Syracuse and Georgetown, and Villanova has had historic rivalries with Providence and Seton Hall, but this is the Big East’s version of UNC vs. Duke.
Rewind back to Feb. 22, when the UConn men’s basketball team hosted the No. 8 Wildcats at the XL Center. Villanova had won each of its last five meetings against the Huskies and three of them were decided by more than 10 points. The energy that the 16,000+ fans, overflowing student section, UConn head coach Dan Hurley (prior to his ejection) and every single player brought to the game created an electric atmosphere equaling the Manchester Derby, El Clásico or even a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Down four with 30 seconds left, it appeared as though the Wildcats would remain undefeated since the Huskies returned to the Big East, but Tyler Polley, RJ Cole and Andre Jackson rallied the Huskies ending in a 71-69 upset as their fans rushed the court. I was at that game, and I was so used to Villanova beating us that I remember telling myself that this wasn’t real.
Three weeks later, the two schools met in the Big East Tournament semifinals, with Villanova getting its revenge 63-60 in a game that should have been for the championship. Creighton-Villanova was a strong showing, but this matchup would have filled up every seat and blown the roof off Madison Square Garden.
What we’re seeing right now is the rivalry’s prime. Both schools are top-tier programs led by coaches who can recruit the best players in the northeast and the country. Even with star players leaving every April, this rivalry is in safe hands next season. Both schools are bringing in a potential Big East Freshman of the Year in Donovan Clingan (UConn) and Cam Whitmore (Villanova). Regular season meetings aside, these two schools are no strangers to the big stage.
The two blue bloods have an extensive history in the regular season and the postseason. They share seven national titles, six in the last 25 years, and produced two Basketball Hall of Fame head coaches in Jim Calhoun and Jay Wright. They have met in the Big East Tournament five times (1983, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2022) and in March Madness once (2014). Both teams are 3-3.
But this historic rivalry goes way beyond the basketball court. Since I enrolled at UConn two years ago, these two programs have won most of the Big East Tournament championships across all sports. UConn has eight to its name while Villanova has won five. Only Georgetown has won as many in that same span (they have seven).
Outside of basketball, the Big East is a very underrated conference. This rivalry helps the Big East not because any selection committee will treat them like a Power 5 conference, but because they consider each of the team’s conference opponents as strong as compared to other leagues (say, Conference USA or the American Athletic Conference).
Softball is another sport impacted by this rivalry. During the 2021 season, the two schools played three times in the Big East Tournament. UConn won the first-round game, but Villanova beat UConn twice in the championship series to take home its first-ever conference crown. Villanova may have won five out of six meetings spanning the regular season, but each game was decided by no more than five runs.
In watching that series and visiting the Big East website in the months after, I started to notice a trend with several of Villanova’s Big East titles. They consistently beat UConn in their path to win it. It’s happened in women’s outdoor track, women’s swimming and diving (twice), men’s basketball and softball to name a few. Only in women’s basketball (twice) have I seen these roles flipped. These titanic clashes aren’t the ones we always ask for, but we get them anyway and we always enjoy them.
The one sport I would like to see a rivalry forged between the two schools in is hockey. The men’s and women’s teams each nearly won the Hockey East Championship while Villanova does not offer a varsity hockey team. The Wildcats don’t even have to be in the Hockey East conference, they could just meet up once a year around Thanksgiving and they would put up a fight like a Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers game. Think of the chaos that might erupt in their first ever meeting.
Although the Huskies and the Wildcats face off against each other in conference play once a year in most sports but basketball, where they play each other twice, they need to play against each other in conference play twice a year at minimum. No Big East rivalry, Seton Hall-St. John’s nor Marquette-DePaul can match the intensity these teams bring in every contest.