PHILADELPHIA -- Connecticut and Tennessee playing for the national title is the ultimate expression of their great rivalry. Soon after it's over, they'll go at each other again -- in recruiting.
As the most successful and visible women's programs in the country, Connecticut and Tennessee have their pick of the top high school talent every year. The trick is, keeping players away from the other team.
"We have a good opportunity to go after players from coast to coast, but there's no absolute in recruiting," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "And it never ends. Never. It's the hardest, most demanding part of the job."
The schools have some classic recruiting battles, but both downplay them. Semeka Randall and Kristen Clement chose Tennessee over Connecticut. Swin Cash and Paige Sauer both visited Tennessee but chose Connecticut.
Then, there are the ones who got away.
"Well, UConn didn't recruit me," Tennessee point guard Kara Lawson said.
Recruiting is just another twist in this rivalry, which is unusual in sports because the teams have no conference or geographic ties. In football, Alabama and Auburn fight for players on their home turf, as do Florida State and Florida. Michigan State and Ohio State are in neighboring states and share the same conference.
Tennessee is deep South. Connecticut is small-town New England. The schools have nothing to do with one another, except they've become the class of women's basketball at a time when the sport is experiencing unprecedented growth.
"I knew where I wanted to go my junior year," said Clement, a Philadelphia-area native whose Tennessee experience has given her a shot at a national title -- as well as a Southern accent. "I'm glad I followed my heart."
With so many great players lined up to go to each school, some get away. Lawson, who has led the Lady Vols on a 20-game winning streak since taking over at point guard, has no hard feelings about being overlooked by Connecticut.
"I went up there in eighth grade and took an unofficial (visit) up there after they won the '95 championship and got a tour from coach Auriemma," Lawson said. "I was so focused on all the attention that I was getting from the other schools that I didn't give too much thought to the ones I wasn't getting recruited by.
"I certainly have a lot of respect for their program and wasn't upset in any way."
TAMIKA'S OBSTACLE: Tennessee's Tamika Catchings, the Associated Press player of the year, credits her teammates for helping her deal with being hearing impaired. She didn't wear a hearing aid for about five years -- until coming to Tennessee.
"I stopped wearing it in seventh grade because kids made fun of me," Catchings said. "I came here and Pat (Tennessee coach Pat Summitt) made me wear it. With the support of my teammates and coaches, it helped me not feel self-conscious."
Catchings said not wearing the hearing aid made her learn to read lips, but she had some difficulties in school.
"The only thing I missed was when the teacher turned to write on the blackboard," she said.
CHEESESTEAKS: It's only fitting that in the cheesesteak capital of the world, the coaches battling for the national championship share names with two rival sandwich houses -- Pat's and Geno's.
Tennessee's Kristen Clement, a Philly-area native, said she prefers another cheesesteak joint -- Jim's Steaks. This prompted Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt to say, "I'm going to Jim's, because I think we ought to get free food. I'm taking our whole team there."
Pat's and Geno's are in South Philly, and it's no surprise which one Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma prefers.
"You been down there recently?" asked Auriemma, from nearby Norristown. "Pat's is old and beat up and dilapidated. Geno's is bigger."
WATCH YOUR MOUTH: About the only provocative statement this weekend came from Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma on Saturday. Asked how he thought Tennessee would guard Huskies point guard Sue Bird, Auriemma said, "I'm sure what they are going to do is what they always do -- hold her and grab her and push her around and do all the stuff they always do. But we're ready for it."
BRANDI II?: The Connecticut players were asked if this championship game could be an "opportunity for a women's sports breakthrough" similar to the U.S. women's soccer team's victory in the World Cup. Shea Ralph, Sue Bird and others giggled, obviously recalling how Brandi Chastain took her shirt off after the U.S. won.
"No, no," said Ralph, who blushed while Bird pretended to wave a shirt above her head.
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us