UConn beats Tennessee 60-45 in renewal of historic series
Hartford — Earlier in the week, UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma intimated that this game was more an ode to nostalgia than anything substantive.
Then, by halftime of Thursday's UConn-Tennessee series reboot, with Auriemma and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper participating in a $10,000 check presentation to the Pat Summitt Foundation before heading to their respective locker rooms, Auriemma was wiping away tears, proving perhaps that when it comes to the all-time rivalry in the women's game, there's always room for nostalgia.
"It was. It was," Auriemma said, asked after UConn's 60-45 victory whether it was at least "good nostalgia." "It felt good seeing them out there playing. I got texts from lots of people saying that it was great for women's basketball.
"... It wasn't the same (without Summitt, Tennessee's legendary coach, who died in 2016 from the effects of Alzheimer's disease.) I miss having her there. I miss looking forward to having her there. For sure. For sure."
Thirteen years after the last time they met — the night Candace Parker dunked for the Lady Vols at the XL Center on Jan. 6, 2007, in a Tennessee win — No. 3 UConn and No. 23 Tennessee renewed their series before 13,659 fans back in Hartford. Blue (UConn wore its special black jerseys, in this case). And orange. Nineteen national championships combined.
It was UConn which came out on top this time, getting 14 points from senior point guard Crystal Dangerfield and a most impressive 13-point effort off the bench from freshman Aubrey Griffin to go with seven rebounds, five steals, three assists and a block.
UConn (17-1) forced 27 Tennessee turnovers, coming back from an eight-point deficit in the second quarter on the heels of Griffin, and held Tennessee to 14 points in the second half, the fewest points in the second half in Lady Vols history.
"It definitely felt intense," Dangerfield, who hails from Murfreesboro, Tenn., and grew up in the heart of Lady Vols territory, said of the atmosphere at the XL Center. "Bodies hitting the floor. There was yelling out there. Yelling. Everywhere."
Even Auriemma returned home Thursday afternoon to find his wife Kathy watching a previous UConn-Tennessee matchup on ESPN, which televised the renewal and prepped for it by showing old footage of the rivals.
Later Thursday, Tennessee took a 31-28 lead at halftime on a 3-pointer from the left corner by Rennia Davis (team-high 16 points), moments after UConn's Megan Walker tied the game at 28 on a 3 from the right baseline.
UConn sophomore forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa sat out the second quarter after picking up her second foul with 48.3 seconds to go in the first quarter, replaced by Griffin. Griffin immediately infused a spark into the game, however, with a steal and a length-of-the-court layup to pull the Huskies within 16-14 at the end of one.
Tennessee led 26-18 on a 3 by Jazmine Massengill in the second, but Walker countered with a 3-pointer and Griffin hit two free throws. Griffin followed that with a layup on the front end of a fast break and UConn was back within 26-25.
Rae Burrell pulled up for a jump shot on the fast break to give the Lady Vols a 28-25 edge before Walker tied it with a 3-pointer, igniting the crowd.
Davis had 10 points in the first half for Tennessee. Dangerfield had 10 for UConn, Walker nine and Griffin eight.
To start the second half, Auriemma left Griffin and fellow freshmen Anna Makurat — Makurat led the Huskies with four rebounds in the opening half — on the floor in place of starters Nelson-Ododa and Kyla Irwin.
"I was surprised," Griffin said of the second-half start. "I knew I need to keep doing the same thing as before."
The move paid immediate dividends. Christyn Williams scored to pull the Huskies to within a point and Griffin had a steal and fed Williams for a fast break basket on the next possession, as UConn took its first lead sintce 2-0, going up 32-31.
Makurat missed a fast break layup and Griffin was there to clean up the rebound for another basket and a 34-31 lead, prompting a Tennessee timeout. The Huskies continued to pad the lead from there.
Makurat hit a 3-pointer and, following a shot attempt by Walker which was blocked, Griffin converted the offensive rebound for a 40-33 lead. Williams scored and Dangerfield added a 3-pointer to make it 12 at 45-33. The Huskies led 49-38 at the end of three quarters.
"As soon as she came in, she made a play," Auriemma said of Griffin. "She's got a lot to offer. She was amazing today. I would say she was the difference in the game."
When UConn and Tennessee last met in 2007, Tennessee's Parker finished with 30 points, 12 rebounds, six blocked shots and a dunk to silence a sold-out crowd at the XL Center as the Lady Vols topped UConn 70-64.
After that, Summitt unexpectedly canceled the regular-season series. After playing 22 times since their original 1 vs. 2 meeting at Gampel Pavilion in 1995 — UConn led the all-time series 13-9, including a 4-0 lead in national championship games — the rivalry had run its course.
It was announced in August, 2018, however, that the two would play in the Basketball Hall of Fame Revival Series beginning this season. As part of a two-year series, UConn will play next season in Knoxville, Tenn.
"I think the first thing to stand out is the atmosphere is a great atmosphere to play in," said Harper, a former player under Summitt, whose team is 15-4 this season in her first year as head coach. "Players come to the University of Tennessee to play in big atmospheres and we were able to do that tonight.
"... I felt like (UConn) came out with a different intensity defensively in the second half. I think their game plan might have changed a little bit. He probably told them to go rebound. We lost our composure."