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UConn WBB Weekly: One ember remains in UConn-Tennessee rivalry

The first big-time rivalry in women’s basketball will likely play its definitive final chapter on Thursday.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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One ember remains in UConn-Tennessee rivalry

Fourteen years ago, the rivalry between UConn and Tennessee came to an unceremonious end when Vols head coach Pat Summitt accused that the Huskies improperly recruited Maya Moore. Any hope for a revival ended when Summitt stepped down from her position after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2012, which she eventually succumbed to in 2016.

When the two teams met again last season, the rivalry had all but faded. UConn, which had risen to unprecedented heights since the series ended with annual trips to the Final Four and six national titles, easily defeated a Tennessee program which had fallen from the national spotlight.

With the Huskies set for a meeting with the Vols on Thursday, the second-game of a two part “revival series” to benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation and Basketball Hall of Fame, Geno Auriemma squashed the notion that the schools should continue to play for the sake of nostalgia.

“I think people have to realize it’s not a big deal anymore,” he said. “I mean, it’s not. Whatever you want to say, it’s not that big a deal anymore.”

“We didn’t sell out the game last year, not even close,” he added later, referencing the attendance of 13,659 at the 15,558-seat XL Center. “So how big a deal is it? And we’ve probably sold out every single Notre Dame game we played in the last 10 years.”

Some of that can be attributed to the game no longer being a battle between the two top programs fighting for supremacy. But Auriemma also just doesn’t feel the same anticipation for it anymore and doesn’t think anyone who follows the program does either.

“I don’t feel that buzz in that like I used to around everywhere — media-wise, neighborhoods here, the state, everything,” he said. “You just don’t. I don’t feel it. Maybe because it’s been too long. Maybe it’s because it was never about Tennessee and Connecticut. Maybe it was because it was about Pat and Geno after a while. I don’t know. But I don’t feel it.”

The rivalry has all but faded into history at this point. However, one last ember remains in Huskies guard Evina Westbrook. She became the first player ever to transfer from Tennessee to UConn and after her waiver and subsequent appeal to play last season were denied, a war of words ensued between the two schools.

Auriemma described the Vols’ women’s basketball program as “an environment that’s not necessarily healthy” and also said “if one of my players went through what Evina went through, there’d be an investigation.” Then-Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer claimed he hadn’t heard Westbrook’s concerns.

With Westbrook relegated to the bench for the season, the rekindled matchup came and went last season without much mention of her. To her credit, she also downplayed the significance of Thursday’s game as well, deflecting it back to her team while declining to incite any controversy.

“I’m not really nervous (go back back),” Westbrook said on Monday. “No, I think it’s more anxious, excited to get down there and just play with play a game with my team. With COVID, every game was up in the air but for now I’m focused on Butler.”

Later, she was asked if she had texted with anyone from Tennessee, still had any friends on the team or was looking forward to anything.

“No,” she said matter-of-factly.

However, when SNY asked her after Tuesday’s game about returning to her former school, she said she’ll be heading back with her teammates, the best support system she could have.

The details of what happened with Westbrook at Tennessee have never come out — and by no means should she feel obligated to divulge them. But considering the way Westbrook has become the heart and soul of the Huskies, referred to — even by her fellow captains — as the team mom of a group lauded for its exceptional off-the-court chemistry by Auriemma, it’s really, really difficult to imagine that she was the problem with the Vols.

Though Westbrook might not publicly admit it, it seems like bad feelings still exist towards her old program and after over two years, she’ll finally get the chance to do something about them.

She won’t be alone, though. Thursday night will likely be an emotional matchup, but not because of what’s happened between the two program. The Huskies — Westbrook’s support system, as she said — will be out to make the Vols pay for whatever happened back before 2018.

So enjoy the game on Thursday night. Because if UConn can stomp Tennessee and help Westbrook move past that chapter in her life once and for all, the flame of what was once one of the greatest rivalries in American sports will finally burn out.


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Scoreboard

Friday, Jan. 15

Seton Hall 77, Marquette 66

Saturday, Jan. 16

Iowa State 75, No. 6 Baylor 71

No. 19 DePaul 78, Georgetown 54

Sunday, Jan. 17

Colorado 77, No. 1 Stanford 72

Seton Hall 83, Butler 68

Marquette 72, St. John’s 61

Wednesday, Jan. 20

Seton Hall 87, St. John’s 64

Marquette 72, Georgetown 40

AP Poll

1. Louisville (+1)

2. NC State (+1)

3. UConn (+1)

4. South Carolina (+1)

5. Stanford (-4)

Notables:

  • Stanford drops to No. 5 after losing to unranked Colorado while everyone else in the top five moves up a spot.
  • Arkansas climbed two spots to No. 15.
  • DePaul jumped up one spot to No. 18.
  • Tennessee fell from No. 23 to No. 25.