It’s January 16, 1995 in Storrs, CT during a game that would change two universities forever.
Two incredibly dominant women’s basketball teams faced off for the first time, kicking off an epic, multi-generational rivalry between the University of Connecticut and the University of Tennessee. Although many details of the actual match up have been lost to sports history, here’s what we know about the rivalry.
The Coaches Ignited the Spark
Tennessee’s Pat Summitt became the all-time winningest NCAA Division I college basketball coach and even then was no stranger to national titles and generational coaching talent. Summit was motivating Tennessee and pushing their full potential, all while continuing the build upon the rivalry that would draw the interest of thousands.
Coaching legend Geno Auriemma stood behind the Connecticut bench, using fiery passion to motivate his team in a matchup that would propel the UConn women’s basketball team into a continued stretch of excellence. His post-game smack talk helped kick off the rivalry and media coverage.
And by March 2008, the New York Times ran this lede: “Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt don’t talk to each other anymore.” Auriemma is quoted in the article throwing some not-so-subtle shade at Tennessee recruiting practices.
The rivalry between coaches continued to make headlines that year. A Sports Goggles blog post from the time alleges it was UConn “moles” at Tennessee who reported the team for [minor] recruiting violations. There’s even a book called Unrivaled that details the collegiate clashes between these beloved coaches.
The Rivalry Burns On
Their first meeting would end in Connecticut’s favor, 77-66, and sparked a rivalry for generations to come. The high-caliber play that these teams offered fans, combined with the intense competition between the universities, warranted national attention. Competitive college women’s basketball games on television were a rarity, and the intensity that followed this game would keep the rivalry alive for generations.
UConn finished their 1995 season as national champs and it inspired Tennessee to push their skills even further. Following UConn’s 1995 victory, Tennessee won three national consecutive titles from 1996-1998.
The elite teams put forth their most dominant play on the court, but the true fuel to the fire has been the passionate fans keeping the rivalry alive. The competition and smack talk have become so ingrained in college basketball fans that the rivalry didn’t fade out, even when the teams (somewhat mysteriously) ceased their regular season meetings in 2007.
Who’s Ahead in Wins?
To this day, these rivals have had 22 total meetings, including four national titles and two national semi-final match-ups, with UConn leading 13-9. Connecticut might have the lead, but Tennessee holds the current win streak with three consecutive wins since 2005. These two teams battled for dominance and took turns taking center stage. Whether on the court for the final quarter of the game or in the post-game press conferences, UConn and Tennessee didn’t let any guards slip.
As far as individual success is concerned, UConn has been national tournament champions 11 times, with Tennessee taking eight national titles of their own. In fact, most recently UConn has won four consecutive titles from 2013-2016 with Tennessee’s most recent streak being a back-to-back win in 2007 and 2008.
Even though these teams don’t meet in the regular season, the rivalry remains red hot. The lack of regular season games only means their post-season match-ups are even more blistering than they should be. The fire that fuels the rivalry is instantly revived and the players are as ready to take the court with the same fury their alumni did in 1995.
These two teams are still regarded as some of the best in women’s college basketball and, despite not meeting in years, still have a rivalry as strong as day one. There is no telling when their next meeting will be, but when UConn and Tennessee take the court again the audience will see just as much passion as that day in 1995.
As Auriemma said, of the rivalry: “In some sense, a small sense, it’s still the Red Sox and the Yankees. It still is.”
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