Originally created 01/05/02

Basketball showdown: UConn vs. Tennessee



KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The greatest rivalry in women's college basketball resumes Saturday: No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 2 Tennessee.

"This is the matchup," said coach Leon Barmore, whose 13th-ranked Louisiana Tech team has lost to both the Huskies and Lady Vols this season. "I think everybody would agree, this is The Game."

Before a sellout crowd of more than 24,000 and a national TV audience, Connecticut (15-0) and Tennessee (11-0) enter the showdown unbeaten.

The Huskies are beating opponents by an average margin of 40 points. The Lady Vols are winning by an average spread of 24 points.

"I think they are the best two teams that our country has to offer. The best two teams in talent, the best two teams from top to bottom," said Barmore, adding, "I am not sure there is a third team."

Connecticut has beaten a past-No. 3 Vanderbilt and current No. 3 Oklahoma this year. The Huskies are playing only their fourth road game of the season and are fresh off a 112-43 Big East rout of Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Tennessee will be making its first appearance at home since November. During an eight-game, cross-country trek, the Lady Vols downed No. 5 Stanford and No. 11 Duke. On Thursday, they beat No. 15 Florida 88-64 in their Southeastern Conference opener.

There have been 33 meetings of No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams in The Associated Press rankings since 1979. The No. 1 team has won 18. Tennessee has played in 18 of these matchups dating to 1980, and won half of them.

Connecticut has played in seven 1 vs. 2 pairings, starting with a 1995 victory over Tennessee. Its record of 5-2 in these affairs includes a 4-1 mark against Tennessee and a 1-1 split in 2001 with Notre Dame.

"Certainly, I feel this is going to be a great matchup," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "On bowl week, this is better than the BCS. It is a unanimous 1 vs. 2."

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma thinks that "there is way too much made out of it," but agrees for fans and for players "there's not enough games like this on the horizon."

Despite Connecticut's two NCAA titles (beating Tennessee in the championship game in 1995 and 2000) and a 7-6 cumulative mark in a seven-year rivalry with the Lady Vols, Auriemma suggests the Huskies are still fighting for respect against the likes of six-time champion Tennessee.

"When we came around we were the new kids on the block. Seven years later we're still around. So we've probably become somewhat of an annoying little brat," he said.

The scenario is different this time. This game is billed as a matchup of Connecticut's five veteran starters against a youthful Tennessee team with a very deep bench.

Four senior players for UConn - Swin Cash, Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones and Sue Bird - all have topped 1,000 points in their careers. The four plus sophomore guard Diana Taurasi are averaging better than 10 points a game this season, with Cash at 16.

"They can beat you from all five spots," Summitt said. "I think that is the thing. Watching Connecticut play, you have to respect every player."

Both coaches think the offensive boards will be key. Auriemma said 6-foot-5 Michelle Snow, 6-5 Ashley Robinson and 6-2 Gwen Jackson will give Tennessee a big advantage down low.

"This is going to be a lot for our players to deal with," he said.

Barmore, who has taken his Lady Techsters to six NCAA title games and two championships since 1982, said UConn's starting five may be the best he's ever seen. And the Taurasi-Bird guard combination "without question is the best we have ever had in the women's game."

Yet Tennessee brings a wealth of talent - 13 of 14 Lady Vols scored against Florida on Thursday - and more of an inside-outside game than his team could muster against the Huskies.

"Where we couldn't score I think Tennessee will," Barmore said.

"I still think the right team is No. 1," the Louisiana Tech coach added. "But don't ever think Tennessee doesn't have a shot. They always have one."