<
>

UConn-Tennessee women's basketball rivalry still good for the game

play
Geno misses having to coach against Pat (1:58)

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma reflects on coaching against Tennessee without Pat Summitt. (1:58)

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Everyone said it couldn't be the same, and of course it couldn't. But the resumption of the UConn-Tennessee women's basketball series Thursday was still an event, and not just for the opportunity to reminisce.

Some of the best players of the legendary rivalry were in the house, including UConn's Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird, and Tennessee's Tamika Catchings as part of the ESPN broadcast, and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper and UConn assistant Shea Ralph on the sidelines. They all played big roles in some of the classics we saw among 22 games in the series from 1995 to 2007.

But as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. The No. 3-ranked Huskies' 60-45 victory over the No. 23 Lady Vols wasn't the greatest basketball. UConn shot 31.5% from the field and missed some layups that had coach Geno Auriemma pulling his hair out. Tennessee had 27 turnovers and at times looked so butterfingers you thought the ball was greased. The Lady Vols had just 14 points in the second half -- the fewest points in the second half in program history.

"They crashed the boards really hard in that third quarter, and we just lost our composure," Harper said. "I think some of our youth and inexperience showed. [Turnovers] have been a concern for this team ... we've been talking about it, watching it on film, emphasizing it in practice. At some point, it's going to set in."

The final total also marked the fewest points that Tennessee has scored against UConn; the previous low was 52 in the 2000 national championship game.

Yet a lot of this was expected. Both programs are in "growth" mode, with UConn still figuring itself out after losing its two senior leaders, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, from last season, and Tennessee in Harper's first season starting a new era. She replaced Holly Warlick, who had replaced the legendary Pat Summitt.

Even so, there was a buzz to the game -- especially the first half, after which Tennessee led 31-28 -- that might have reminded folks a bit of yesteryear. And just as there were breakout individual performances in those games, the Huskies had to like what they saw from freshman guard Aubrey Griffin. She came off the bench to finish with 13 points, which wasn't her season high (that was 25 at Seton Hall on Dec. 5) but seemed like a big step for her, considering the circumstances. She was 5 of 8 from the field with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 5 steals.

"Aubrey was unbelievable," Auriemma said. "She really changed the complexion of the game."

Added Griffin: "I feel like we're going to get in the gym more and make more shots. Our shots weren't going in, but everything else was good. Our defense was outstanding, and everybody played together."

Senior guard Crystal Dangerfield led UConn with 14 points, Olivia Nelson-Ododa had 10, and Megan Walker and Christyn Williams had nine apiece. For Dangerfield, who grew up in Tennessee, it was nice to finally take part in a rivalry she had some memories about from her childhood.

"Hopefully it continues," Dangerfield said of the series, "because I think this game was a good spark to get that back. Bodies flying everywhere, yelling, screaming -- it was a pretty good game."

Was it beautiful basketball? No. There will be a lot for Auriemma to critique. But it was still enough to win in what could have been a game that rattled the Huskies. Maybe the first half did. Then they took control.

"It always feels good when you beat a really good team," Auriemma said. "The way they played in the first half. ... We've played some good teams. I don't know that they're No. 23 in the country; they're pretty darn good."

Harper said she feels her team has improved this season, and she wants the Lady Vols to remember the first half as proof that they can play with anyone.

But they struggled a lot in the second half. Rennia Davis led the way with 16 points and eight rebounds, but she felt the Lady Vols just didn't respond to how aggressive and intense the Huskies were after halftime. Still, she took away some good vibes from the experience.

"It was a great environment," Davis said. "Especially with the history between both programs."

play
1:01

Lady Vols commit 27 turnovers in loss to UConn

No. 23 Tennessee commits 27 turnovers and scores a season-low 14 points in the second half, falling to No. 3 UConn 60-45.

How much of "traditional" Tennessee does Auriemma see with the current Lady Vols?

"Still some; I mean, Kellie played there, so that's still part of who she is," he said. "But you evolve as a coach. Kellie changed, and certainly the players she has [aren't the same]. We're not the Connecticut we used to be. We don't have the players we used to have. So you have to cater to what you have.

"I think Kellie's done a great job of trying to put her spin on the program, which is what you're supposed to do."

By the same token, Auriemma said that it was understandable that Harper would want to maintain links to Tennessee's past.

"I don't think she wants to lose the tradition and the excellence that they stand for, and all their accomplishments," Auriemma said. "You certainly don't want to minimize that or pretend it didn't exist. But Kellie's not Pat. Too many coaches take over legendary programs and try to become what it was. And you can't do that.

"When John Wooden retired, everybody who came in was trying to be UCLA and John Wooden. It's great that Kellie's being Kellie. It's not fair that Holly was being compared to Pat all the time and was expected to be Pat. Jr. It doesn't work that way."

The memory of Summitt was still vivid at this game; Connecticut made a $10,000 donation to the Pat Summitt Foundation, and a portion of the game proceeds goes to the foundation, too. That also will be the case for next season's UConn-Tennessee game in Knoxville.

Will the series extend beyond that? That's unknown now. But we saw glimpses Thursday that this could still be a good thing for both programs. Just as it used to be.

Auriemma, who coming into Thursday tried to downplay the hype around the rivalry resuming, reiterated that nobody necessarily "needs" this game, and it's more about bringing in money to the Pat Summitt Foundation. He added that UConn wore its black uniforms specifically so they could be auctioned off to benefit the foundation.

Yet he acknowledged he did feel some sentimentality about it all. He smiled talking about how people contacted him during the day that they were watching some of the previous games of the series that were being broadcast.

And when asked if looking at the other sideline and not seeing Summitt felt "sad," Auriemma became reflective. He said he didn't feel that much during the game, because he had focused on it beforehand.

"When you're our age as a coach, and you're still able to do this -- when so many people that were our contemporaries are not here with us any longer -- it does make you reflect back a little bit," Auriemma said. "Things we used to take for granted, you know. For a while there it was, 'Yeah, when's the Tennessee game?' Geno and Pat. Pat and Geno.

"It was like that for me leading up to the game, thinking I'm fortunate to still be able to do this. It wasn't the same. I miss having her there."

Then he amended that slightly, because he remembers well how challenging it was to battle Summitt's teams.

"I miss looking forward to having her there," he said. "I didn't miss having to coach against her. But I missed looking forward to it. For sure."