Evina Westbrook may be the only player to formally defect from Tennessee to UConn, but she isn’t the first to trade Tennessee orange for national flag blue. Crystal Dangerfield is a native of Murfreesboro, Tennessee and growing up, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that she’d head to Knoxville and be a Lady Vol.
“In the gym once I was older, that was the first thing they would say to me: ‘You’re probably going to Tennessee, it’s right down the road, you want to say home,’” Dangerfield said. “You went out your house and around the corner it’s a Tennessee flag here and there.”
Despite the temptation to play three hours from her hometown and have her family at every game, Dangerfield made the decision that was best for her — not anyone else. That decision was UConn, a school that was winning titles, while Tennessee was slipping.
“I love my family, even now I miss them sometimes but there’s a difference in this program,” she said last season. “If you look up on the wall, you’re surrounded by greatness and that’s where I wanted to be because I knew this coaching staff would push me to be somewhere on this wall. That’s what I wanted.”
But when Dangerfield committed to UConn during the fall of her junior year, she still needed to ride out two more years in Lady Vols country.
“I remember one time before a high school game, I had a couple grown men sitting on the front row, giving me crap about it,” she said. “It still lives on. Obviously I made the decision to come here and I don’t regret that decision.”
While Dangerfield’s early affinity for Tennessee makes sense considering she grew up there, Christyn Williams doesn’t have the same claim. Yet last season, in an unrelated discussion about the UConn-Notre Dame rivalry, the now-sophomore dropped a bomb.
“I was more of a Tennessee fan to be honest with you,” Williams. “I wasn’t a fan of UConn until I started getting recruited by them. Then I loved them.”
So how did that happen?
“I don’t know, it’s in the SEC and that was just the school to watch and my mom’s a Pat Summitt fan,” Williams said.
In fact, she initially didn’t even want to go to UConn. Williams wanted to be on the other side of the court from them. But it didn’t take long to change her opinion.
“It’s not that I didn’t like them, I just wanted to be on the team to beat them. Then I started getting recruited by them and I was like ‘Ooo, I can join them,’” she said. “UConn was just too much. It’s UConn.”
While the players that take the court tomorrow are too young to remember the height of the rivalry being rekindled Thursday night, the Huskies’ coaching staff can still look back on the big moments like it was yesterday.
Associate head coach Chris Dailey spoke about two things that stuck in her mind from that first meeting in 1995:
“I called Jamelle Elliot over to the side. We were up by — I forget how many at the time — I said ‘If you want to get on TV, you better find Rebecca after this game.’ And if you watch, you see Jamelle go right to Rebecca and she got right on TV. And everyone probably thought I was giving her ‘Hey, if she misses this free throw, run back.’ No, ‘If you want to get on TV, you better find Rebecca.’
Second part of the quote:— Daniel Connolly (@DanielVConnolly) January 23, 2020
"If you watch, you see Jamelle go right to Rebecca and she got right on TV. And everyone probably thought I was giving her ‘Hey, if she misses this free throw, run back.’ No, ‘If you want to get on TV, you better find Rebecca.’
Here's the clip: pic.twitter.com/ya3QepPMQb
Then Dailey described the scene after the game, when the fans stayed long after the final buzzer sounded:
“The second thing is just — I get chills still — of the celebration but that the fans wouldn’t leave. When we went into the locker room, we’re not the type of program that generally goes out for curtain calls. We literally sent (the players) back out and us coaches went back out to enjoy it and to thank the fans for being there and for the enthusiasm and the energy. The first time you do anything is special and I think that’s what I’ll always remember about the first time we upset the No. 1 team.”
Shea Ralph, now an assistant for the Huskies, got her first taste of the rivalry in 1997. However, the two games that stick with her came during the 1999-2000 season. In the second regular season meeting, UConn led by one with 13 seconds left. Semeka “Boo” Randall dribbled into a trap by Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova but beat it and hit the game-winning shot with 4.4 seconds left.
“I was pissed off for about two weeks after that because we had the game won,” Ralph said. “And when we had the opportunity to play them again, I had the feeling that I couldn’t wait to play the game, not to make the same mistakes over again because I knew we were the better team.”
Ralph and the Huskies got that chance two months later in the 2000 national championship game. UConn came in with determination after the heartbreaking loss in February. Tennessee lost before the game even began. Junior guard Ace Clement went down with an injury during pregame shoot-around and promptly sucked the life out of the Lady Vols. The Huskies took advantage and romped Tennessee with an eye-opening 71-52 victory.
To many, it was the moment that represented UConn’s transition from an up-and-coming program to an established national power. While the Huskies already won a title in 1995, the 2000 team proved that they were no flash in the pan.
“I was kind of upset that Ace Clement didn’t play because I never wanted anyone to be like ‘Well you guys won but they were shorthanded.’ You want to win that game outright. No one really talked much about it after the fact but I remember feeling disappointed that she wasn’t going to play in that game and my roommate was like ‘Forget it,’ and I was like yeah, you’re right.
“We went to the circle and they looked funny. Ace Clement, you could tell she was disappointed. They weren’t looking us in the eye. That doesn’t usually happen in a game like that. People are staring each other down like a boxing match, they weren’t doing that. I think it was foreshadowing but I remember that game felt dominant. We felt dominant. It felt like the tides were shifting, to me, in that particular game.”
The rivalry began with...UNC?
The seminal moment in the UConn-Tennessee rivalry was certainly the first game in 1995 at Gampel Pavilion. But without the help of North Carolina and Sylvia Hatchell, it may have never happened.
In 1994, ESPN wanted to create a marquee women’s basketball game on Martin Luther King Day — which it hoped would become a staple on the calendar. Coming off a thrilling Elite Eight battle the year prior, UConn and UNC seemed like the perfect matchup.
The Huskies were agreeable and happy for any and all the national attention it could get as a rising program. But the call to the Tarheel women’s basketball offices didn’t go as well. Hatchell would only play UConn on her home court but an ESPN contract between the ACC and Big East that required the game be played on the Big East team’s floor. Because of that, UNC turned down the offer.
In need of a dance partner for the Huskies, ESPN set its sights on Tennessee — the premier program in the sport at that time. Initially, Pat Summitt was skeptical. The Lady Vols were in the midst of their conference schedule and had to play that very weekend. But ultimately, Summitt agreed.
“For the good of the game, I’ll take it,” she said.
Source: “Unrivaled: UConn, Tennessee and the Twelve Years that Transcended Women’s Basketball” by Jeff Goldberg.