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UConn women’s basketball’s rivalry with Stanford built on mutual respect, not bad blood

The Huskies and Cardinal are competitors, not adversaries, according to Tara VanDerveer.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Press Conference
Stanford Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer during NCAA women’s Final Four practice at Target Center.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For over 20 years, UConn’s rivalries dominated the sport of women’s basketball. First, there was Tennessee. Beginning in 1995, the two teams battled for supremacy each season as they met in three national title games, two national semifinals and an Elite Eight.

After Pat Summitt abruptly ended the series in 2007, Notre Dame became the Huskies’ archenemy. They met in the Final Four every year from 2011-2015 and did so again in 2018 and 2019.

At the same time, those rivalries were also famous for everything that happened off the court. Geno Auriemma frequently exchanged verbal jabs with both Summitt and Muffet McGraw through the media — and has continued doing so with McGraw.

There was rarely a pleasant moment between the Huskies and the two others program — in terms of both basketball and everything else.

That’s not the case with Stanford, though. The Cardinal are led by Tara VanDerveer, who owns the third-highest winning percentage of any coach against Auriemma (38.9) and is the only women’s coach with more victories than him. The two teams have met 18 times with the Huskies claiming 11 victories and Stanford taking seven. Six of those contests have been in the NCAA Tournament while five have been in the Final Four.

They’ve also been the two most consistent programs in the nation — both in terms of winning and style.

“I think like us, they haven’t changed much over the years,” Auriemma said. “They still play the same style of play. When you watch them, you know exactly what you’re going to get. There’s no surprises when you play Stanford. It’s not like they’re going to come up with a new and different way to play every year. They play hard, they play together, they play positionless most of the time, they shoot the ball great every year. It’s the same Stanford team that I remember 25, 27 years ago playing around here. It’s just different people, but it’s the same.”

But even with all the high-stakes battles between the two teams, the competition never spilled off the court in the same way that it did with Tennessee and Notre Dame. Instead of the rivalry being built with vitriol and mutual hate, the foundation for UConn-Stanford stands on a deep respect from both sides.

“I wouldn’t say we have a very close relationship like I have with some other coaches, but we also have a relationship where I think we both understand exactly what we’re trying to do,” Auriemma said of VanDerveer. “We both, I think, have tremendous respect for each other and our programs.”

“Geno likes to kind of get in little battles with people. Maybe it was Pat when Pat was alive, or Muffet, but I don’t know. I like him and I think we get along really well,” VanDerveer said. “I’ve never felt that we were adversaries in a negative way but more competitors in a very good way.”

For a while, the Cardinal were a staple on the Huskies’ non-conference schedule, facing off in every regular season between 2009 and 2014. But they haven’t met since the 2017-18 opener — a bizarre neutral-site contest in Columbus, Ohio of all places.

Could a future series be in the works? Don’t count on it. Both coaches seemed to push the onus onto the other to set something up.

“As far as playing them again, we’re always open to scheduling and it would be fun to at least go to a tournament that they’re at,” VanDerveer said.

“(The series) didn’t get renewed,” Auriemma said. “I guess we played at their place, then they were supposed to come back to our place and something got lost in translation, I guess.”

It’s not abundantly clear what Auriemma is referencing since the two schools completed three home-and-home series in 2014 before a three-year gap until the game in Columbus, but neither coach seemed to jump at the possibility of adding the other to their respective schedules regardless.

But considering how young both teams’ cores are, it’s likely Friday night won’t be the last NCAA Tournament meeting between the two schools over the next few seasons.

Dorka Juhász’s status

When UConn left for Minneapolis on Tuesday, it did so without Dorka Juhász. She had just fractured and dislocated her left wrist the night before in the Huskies’ Elite Eight win over NC State and ultimately underwent surgery to repair it on Wednesday. If all goes well, Juhász will join up with the team ahead of Friday night’s matchup with Stanford.

“We’re going to try to get her out here tomorrow so she can be a part of this,” Auriemma said.

Coming back to Minneapolis

UConn’s trip to Minneapolis for the Final Four is a homecoming of sorts on two fronts. Paige Bueckers is a native of Hopkins, Minnesota, located just 10 miles from the Target Center — the venue where the Huskies won their first national championship game back in 1995.

If UConn can come away with two more wins — and as a result, a title — this weekend, it’ll be a full-circle moment for both Bueckers and the program.

During Bueckers’ sensational high school career, she lost a state championship game at the Target Center as a sophomore. While she took home the crown as a junior, that tournament was held at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena. Bueckers now has a chance for redemption.

If that happens, it would also snap the Huskies’ longest championship drought since they won their first in 1995. There’s already some similarities to their last trip here as well, from the opponent to the facilities themselves.

“I’ve probably been walking around trying to think how much this place has changed since 1995 and we’re in the same locker room I think we were in back then and we’re playing the same team we played back then,” Auriemma said. “So it’s funny how life comes around, right?”