UConn-Tennessee: drama, diatribe, Doral, choke signs and utter humanity

UConn-Tennessee hasn't been a thing in more than a decade. But it's still a thing, the impetus delivering women's sports from the small type of the agate page to the headlines of Page One, the catalyst for the proliferation of a revolution.

Indeed, the residual effect of women's sports' greatest rivalry has been greater awareness for female athletes everywhere. Not just in Connecticut. Women's sports are bigger and better than ever because of the history behind what's about to transpire again Thursday night at the XL Center.

UConn-Tennessee gave us unfailing drama and diatribe, ultimately delivered by the Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick of women's sports: Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma.

Among my greatest professional blessings was the right-place/right-time thing with UConn-Tennessee. I was a UConn beat writer from 1996-2001, traveling the country with the Huskies, including several hilarious trips to Knoxville. As the rivalry renews Thursday, here are some of my favorite memories:

• Our first trip to Tennessee came in Jan. 1996, nine months removed from UConn's first national championship. Victim: Tennessee. There were times beating Tennessee in 1995 felt like the U.S. beating the Russians at Lake Placid. So imagine how badly the Russians (Lady Vols in this case) wanted revenge?

Tennessee had won 69 straight games at Thompson-Boling Arena, this monolithic monument to orange, where Pat Summitt was bigger than life and musical interludes featured "Rocky Top," "Rocky Top" and "Rocky Top."

UConn trailed most of the game. At one point, after what Auriemma perceived a bad call, he yelled over to us on press row, "Now you see why they've won 69 in a row here?"

The Huskies rallied late and won by six. Quite the celebration ensued into the night.

We awakened the next morning to about three inches of snow. A cataclysmic event in Tennessee. Perfectly catastrophic for the traveling party. No planes leaving. And we were headed to Miami to complete the road trip. First world problems, clearly.

I remember ordering some fruit for breakfast in the hotel that morning. I was told there's no fruit because the "trucks couldn't get through." I recall asking, "through what?"

Auriemma, knowing we'd all be grounded, threw a party at the team hotel and was nice enough to invite the media. We learned that day Jennifer Rizzotti was even better at pool than basketball. She dusted us. And liked it. Funny how a snowstorm (dusting?) turned into a blessing, though. We got to know the kids in better and different ways. We sang "Runaround" by Blues Traveler with Amy Duran, laughed at all of Nykesha Sales' Keesh-isms and endured all the barbs from Willie Mosconi Rizzotti. Wish we still got to know the kids in that way.

Happily, we got out to Miami the next day. It wasn't long until Auriemma, Carl Adamec of the Journal-Inquirer and yours truly got to play golf at Doral. Saw my first alligator (a big green monster on the Big Blue Monster) near an errant tee shot. I wished the gator (and my Titleist) a happy life.

• Knoxville was a hoot. Unflaggingly nice people. Our favorite haunt was a place called "Calhoun's." (We laughed in those days at the irony). Great food. Chris Elsberry of the Connecticut Post earned restaurant-wide applause one night for eating the entire 48-ounce rack of ribs.

Our other favorite place: The hotel bar at the Marriott called "Knuckles." Auriemma held court late into the night there before an afternoon game the next day. UConn won big.

As we walked to the postgame presser, Randy Smith of the Journal-Inquirer, one of my heroes in this business, says, "He had 15 Sam Adams last night and beat her (Summitt) on her home court by 20!"

• Speaking of Smith: He asked the greatest question in the history of the rivalry. Tennessee came to Hartford during Diana Taurasi's freshman year. Sellout crowd in a snowstorm. Taurasi bailed out the Huskies late, all while UConn appeared to get a friendly whistle or two.

After the game, Smith asked Summitt, "When do you suppose the officiating will catch up with the quality of play?" Summitt actually laughed, politely declined to answer but certainly encouraged us to convey our own thoughts in the paper.

• Officiating was a fascinating subtext of this rivalry. During the 2000 national title game in Philadelphia, UConn had a 15-point lead in the first half. It also had committed nine fouls to Tennessee's two at the time. Auriemma kept yelling at the women's basketball committee members sitting courtside about crooked officiating. They sat stonefaced. We couldn't stop laughing.

• Best (worst?) officiating moment: The teams played an epic in Knoxville on Feb. 2, 2001, the night Svetlana Abrosimova was lost for the season because of a foot injury. Close game late. Michele Snow drove the lane and ran over Shea Ralph. Not only did the officials ignore the charge, but whistled Taurasi for her fifth foul on the ensuing shot attempt.

Auriemma was probably the most enraged I'd ever seen him. Before Chris Dailey could run interference, he gave official June Corteau (never his favorite) the choke sign.

Normally, I like to actively scribble the drama I see and hear in such situations. I was rendered useless, laughing so hard I almost snorted. He got a technical, needless to say.

• I miss a lot of things about Knoxville. But nothing more than the media pool we'd have before each game. Topic: How many times would the Tennessee band play "Rocky Top" during the game? I recall Lori Riley of the Hartford Courant won one time with 18.

• Finally: The rivalry's best moment happened when the Huskies and Lady Vols weren't even playing, the day before the 2012 Final Four games in Denver.

UConn was in the middle of an NCAA-mandated shootaround, during which fans were allowed to watch. Summitt, who had retired and news of her illness had become public, walked into the arena. Auriemma, whose feud at the time with Summitt was very public, walked over to her.

The two embraced for what felt like a lifetime. No words spoken. None required. Just a moment of utter humanity. This rivalry — with drama and so full of invective over the years — suddenly became just sports again, showing all of us there is what we do ... and then who we really are.

Every eye in the house was on the matriarch and patriarch of the women's sports revolution. My favorite sports moment ever.

The rivalry is back Thursday. No, it won't have the rattle and hum of the old days. But it's no less significant. I was lucky to be there.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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