PHILADELPHIA -- The next game in the Connecticut-Tennessee rivalry could do more than decide the national championship.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma feels it also might be a defining moment for the sport of women's basketball.
Think Michigan State-Indiana State on the men's side in 1979. Or the World Cup run by the U.S. women's soccer team. These two teams are so good, the rivalry so hot, even the most disinterested of fans might be drawn to tonight's NCAA title game (9 p.m., ESPN).
UConn (35-1) has been ranked No. 1 all season. Tennessee (33-3) is No. 2. No two teams can put more talent on the floor, no two are more visible in the media.
Both also see what the matchup can do for their game, which still has to fight for attention among fans consumed by the men's tournament.
"This is like Houston and UCLA at the Astrodome, but for the national championship," Auriemma said. "What's going to happen after (today), I don't know. If (today) is a lousy game, maybe nothing.
"But my guess is if it is a great game, there will be some effects. There definitely will be some kids watching, there will be people watching that maybe had not turned on a game before just because they are going to get caught up in all the hype."
Said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt: "I don't know that there's ever been a better matchup. It doesn't get any better than this."
The intensity of the rivalry far exceeds its relatively short duration. The two first met in January 1995 and the series stands 5-5. They've played three times before in the NCAA tournament, including UConn's victory in the 1995 title game, which capped a 35-0 season for the Huskies.
In eight of the 10 meetings, one or the other was ranked No. 1. They split two games this season, each winning on the other's court.
It's the kind of game that brings out the competitive zeal in everyone. Take Tennessee's Michelle Snow, a slim 6-foot-5 center with an easy smile. Snow said she likes the Connecticut players and is friends with several. But come tonight, forget it.
"When the jump ball goes up, you don't respect anybody," Snow said. "I don't care if it's your mom on the opposite team, you can't respect that. You're talking about the national championship. We worked the whole season for this."
Who wins might hinge on who controls the other's point guard.
Sophomore Sue Bird has given Connecticut a steady presence that the Huskies lacked a year ago when she was sidelined by a torn knee ligament. She scored 19 points and did not commit a turnover in UConn's 89-67 win over Penn State in Friday's semifinals.
Tennessee still remembers the 25 points she scored in UConn's 74-67 victory at Knoxville Jan. 8.
"It's going to come to wearing her out for 40 minutes," Tennessee's Kristen Clement said. "I know coach is probably going to put me on her just to pick her up full court and try to make her work with the ball. The key is making her give up the ball and make someone else handle it."
Tennessee is 20-0 since freshman Kara Lawson moved to point guard. Lawson was responsible for cracking Rutgers' tough matchup zone in the Lady Vols' 64-54 victory Friday night. She scored 19 points and has turned the ball over only five times in NCAA play.
"I think we should check her birth certificate. She doesn't play like a freshman," Auriemma said. "She's not afraid. She's competitive. She's tough. She's exactly what they needed."
All-Americans will be everywhere. Connecticut has two first-teamers in Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova. Tennessee has a first-teamer in Tamika Catchings, the national player of the year, and a second-team pick in Semeka Randall.
And they all know what the other is going to do.
"We have a million tapes of them and they have a million tapes of us," Ralph said. "You can scout all you want, but I think ... it's going to be more about who wants it the most and who is willing to work the hardest to get it and who is the most prepared."
If along the way it does something for the sport, so much the better.
"The game has been looking for events that define the game and I think '95 was one of the events that put a stamp on the game," Auriemma said. "Now here we are five years later and there's another one.
"I think after (tonight) the game will be changed because of where it is and who is playing and the kind of game it's going to be."
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