When UConn travels to Knoxville on Thursday, it will mark the 26th time the two schools have played each other. The heated rivalry, as we know it today, between two of the top women’s basketball programs almost didn’t come to be.
ESPN needed a game on Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1995. Carol Stiff had a Women’s basketball game in mind, North Carolina at UConn. Only one problem, the Tar Heels refused to travel north in the midst of conference play.
So, Stiff looked around the nation for a coach that never turned down competition, Pat Summit. She didn’t shy away from facing the Huskies in the middle of the SEC season.
By 1995, Summit had led the Lady Vols to three national titles over the past eight seasons.
UConn was a program trying to prove itself in 1995. On the national stage, and the first meeting of a legendary series between the two teams, the No. 2 Huskies upset the No. 1 Lady Vols. Three months later, Geno Auriemma would lead the Huskies to their first National Title, defeating Summit.
Since that 1995 meeting, UConn has brought home 11 National Championships. Tennessee holds eight National Championships. The next closest school has three.
Summit and Auriemma’s relationship wasn’t the best, highlighted by the sudden end to the series after the 2006-07 season. Summit nixed the series after an alleged recruiting violation done by UConn. Due to her sudden retirement in 2012 after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, she would never face a UConn team after that 70-64 win in 2007.
Auriemma claimed the two mended their relationship in the years following their last matchup. He was the first donation to the Pat Summit Foundation, cutting a $10,000 check.
Hollie Warlick – Tennessee’s former head coach that replaced Summit – revived the series in order to benefit the Pat Summit Foundation. The first game in the new series came in 2020, but Warlick would never coach against UConn.
Kellie Harper took the reigns ahead of the 2019-20 season. During her first year, she took a trip to Hartford, CT to face the Huskies. UConn would win, and the Lady Vols have yet to beat UConn this decade.
Harper had success against UConn though, as a player. With her maiden name, Jolly across her back, and a torn ACL, Harper put up 19 points to defeat UConn in the 1997 Elite Eight. She went on to earn Summit’s seventh title that year.
“The environments were amazing,” Harper said, reflecting on her playing days. “The feel, the buzz, it was so alive.”
While women’s college basketball fans want the series to return, Auriemma didn’t sound as sure.
“You know, everything’s like a Broadway show,” he told reporters ahead of the rivalry’s renewal. “It has its run, and then it’s got to end. And it ended, and I don’t know that you’re going to get that back, and I think college basketball is doing pretty damn good without it.”
As for Harper, she would like to see the series continue past 2023. There isn’t currently an agreement in place to continue the annual matchup.
UConn leads the all-time series 16-9, but the Lady Vols look to chip into that lead on Thursday. ESPN’s College Gameday will precede the 8 p.m. ET tip-off in what is expected to be another competitive game in the longstanding rivalry.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to have a great atmosphere and a great environment to showcase women’s basketball at this elite level,” Harper said. “I know our team is excited, who wouldn’t be? Everybody wants to play in that kind of environment with that atmosphere.”