Some sports rivalries stand above the rest, like Red Sox-Yankees or Duke-North Carolina. In women's basketball, UConn-Tennessee is that rivalry.
There’s nothing geographically similar between these two schools. They don’t have decades upon decades of history, but they created their own brand of conflict. It was north vs south; established powerhouse against rising contender. But most of all, it was just two damn good teams led by two damn good coaches, elevating the sport which they played into a national spectacle.
Over a span of 12 seasons, UConn and Tennessee squared off 22 times. From 1995 to 2007, they alternated annual regular season matchups between Storrs and Knoxville. While these games always matched the hype, they often felt like a prelude to the real show in the Final Four.
Geno Auriemma and Pat Summit met in the Final Four six times: twice in the semifinal, and four times in the National Championship game. The Huskies dominated this part of the rivalry, going 5-1 against the Lady Vols including a perfect record in the championship game.
While UConn won the games that truly mattered, they only held a 13-9 edge over Pat Summit’s teams. In fact, Tennessee had won the final three meetings.
In 2007, however, the rivalry came to an abrupt end when Tennessee chose not to renew the series with UConn. It was believed that Auriemma and Summit had a strained relationship. In spite of that, there was still a lot of respect.
Without Pat Summitt, UConn basketball isn’t where it is today. Together the two schools helped lift the profile of a growing sport.
As UConn started to become the powerhouse program which it is today, everything the Huskies did along the way was measured up against Summit's Tennessee dynasty. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease before the 2011-2012 season. She officially retiring after helping lead the Vols to an Elite Eight appearance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported this past weekend that Summitt was struggling, and her family was "preparing for the worst." She passed away Tuesday morning surrounded by family and close friends.
Pat Summit's passing hit hard for all women's basketball fans at every level. Without Pat Summitt, the sport isn’t where it is today. Diana Taurasi summed it up best.
"If it wasn't for her, we probably wouldn't be playing in Madison Square Garden. Connecticut never would have been Connecticut," Taurasi told the Associated Press. "She made people take notice of the sport at a time when it probably wasn't easy. She forced the hand. She was the one."
UPDATE: Statement from Geno Auriemma on Summitt's passing -
Today is a sad day for me personally and for everyone in the women's basketball community. One would be hard-pressed to name a figure who had a more indelible impact on her profession than Pat Summitt. Pat set the standard for which programs like ours dreamed of achieving, both on and off the court. Our sport reached new heights thanks to her success, which came from an incomparable work ethic and a larger than life, yet, compassionate personality. But her legacy is illustrated most clearly by the Lady Vols who went on to achieve greatness in basketball and in life.