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Why UConn-Baylor is the best rivalry in women's college basketball

Baylor and NaLyssa Smith beat UConn and Christyn Williams, left, 74-58 in Hartford on Jan. 9, 2020. The Lady Bears outscored the Huskies 19-6 in the fourth quarter. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

When No. 4 UConn and No. 7 Baylor meet in Waco, Texas, on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), it might represent the best rivalry right now in women's college basketball. Even if they don't realize it.

"I don't think of it as a rivalry game," Baylor senior DiDi Richards said of facing UConn. "I think of it as a nonconference game that everyone looks forward to on national television."

But that's one definition of a rivalry: a meeting between top opponents that viewers circle on their calendars. And especially in a season when so many games have been postponed or canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this matchup is one of the most anticipated.

Until recently, UConn-Notre Dame was the top rivalry of the past decade, but that matchup is on hiatus. Before that, it was UConn-Tennessee, a series with a glorious past but uncertain future. Prior to that, it was probably Tennessee-Louisiana Tech.

UConn and Baylor have played eight times, so the series doesn't have the longevity of those three rivalries. Nor the heat that developed between the Huskies and both the Lady Vols and the Irish.

Coaches Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey -- who is expected back on the sideline after missing Saturday's Lady Bears victory over TCU because of COVID-19 contact-tracing protocol -- haven't traded barbs the same way UConn's Auriemma has with some other coaches, most notably the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Muffet McGraw, now retired from Notre Dame. In fact, Auriemma was surprised by the warm welcome from Baylor fans the first time the Huskies visited Waco, in December 2011.

Here are five reasons why the underappreciated UConn-Baylor rivalry is better than you think.

The series is tied

They've each won four times in the series, with some good games after an inaugural blowout. UConn, on its way to a second consecutive perfect season, took the first meeting 70-50 in the 2010 national semifinals in San Antonio.

Since then, three UConn-Baylor games were decided by six points or less. Three others had 11-point margins. Last season's 74-58 Baylor victory in Hartford, Connecticut, was close -- 55-52 through three quarters -- before the Lady Bears dominated the fourth quarter and outscored the Huskies 19-6. That was the second time in the series that Baylor won in Connecticut.

Defense has been a big part of Baylor's credentials as a rival to UConn, including in winning the past two meetings. In the Lady Bears' 68-57 victory in January 2019, they held UConn to 29.4% from the field, the Huskies' worst shooting percentage in 20 years. Then last season, the Huskies shot even a little worse against Baylor: 29.0%.

Today's stars on display

UConn and Baylor don't seem to recruit against each other. The Lady Bears always have a strong Texas component to their roster (including eight of their 12 players this season), whereas UConn has had just two players from the Lone Star State, the most well-known being Moriah Jefferson (2012-16).

But both programs have had stars who continue to make an impact at the next level. Four top juniors are among the current players to watch: forward NaLyssa Smith (17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) and center Queen Egbo (12.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG) of Baylor, and forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa (17.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG) and guard Christyn Williams (17.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG) of UConn.

Smith, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds in last season's win over UConn, is a relentless 6-foot-2 presence on the boards, and Egbo has moved into a full-time starting role in her third season. Their inside battle should be one of the keys Thursday against Nelson-Ododa, who has increased her scoring average from 10.9 PPG last season. Williams has improved both her scoring (14.6) and rebounding (4.9) averages from last season.

And guard Paige Bueckers -- who leads UConn in scoring (18.2), assists (5.2) and steals (2.7) -- is one of the candidates for national freshman of the year. She faced very high expectations coming in and has more than met them, making the transition to the college game look seamless so far.

Baylor and UConn have combined for the most NCAA titles of the past decade

Overall, only Tennessee (eight titles) compares with UConn's 11 titles. But dating to the 2010-11 season, UConn has won four national championships and Baylor two. During this stretch, the Huskies have eight regular-season titles (between the Big East and American Athletic Conference) and nine league tournament championships. Baylor has won 10 regular-season Big 12 titles (one was shared) and eight conference tournament crowns.

They're a combined 14-0 in national championship games

The Huskies are 11-0 in the final and the Lady Bears 3-0. Their only Final Four matchup was the aforementioned 2010 semifinal.

They might have faced off for the championship in 2012 and '13; perhaps if they had, this rivalry would be more heated. But the Huskies lost in overtime to Notre Dame in the 2012 national semifinals, and the Irish then lost to a Baylor team that finished 40-0.

The next season, Louisville shocked Baylor in the Sweet 16. Had the Lady Bears advanced to the final, it could have been an epic showdown between stars Brittney Griner, a Baylor senior, and Breanna Stewart, a UConn freshman. The Lady Bears had defeated the Huskies 76-70 in Hartford during that regular season.

As it was, UConn beat Louisville by 33 points in the 2013 NCAA final.

Iconic coaches

Auriemma could reach a milestone Thursday if the Huskies beat Baylor: It would be his 1,098th career victory, tying Summitt for second place on the all-time wins list in women's college basketball. Stanford's Tara VanDerveer passed Summitt last month and holds the record with 1,103 wins after Sunday's victory against Arizona State (she has coached seven more seasons than Auriemma).

Mulkey, an assistant for 15 seasons at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, before taking over Baylor in 2000, is 612-102 over 21 seasons in Waco.

Auriemma is in both the Naismith and Women's Basketball halls of fame. Mulkey is in the Women's Basketball hall, and will officially join the Naismith hall when the Class of 2020 -- which had its induction postponed by the pandemic -- is honored in May.

Mulkey is also the only person in NCAA women's history to win a national championship as a player (1982), assistant coach (1988) and head coach (2005, '12, '19).

Other top rivalries on tap

Stanford-Oregon: The top-ranked Cardinal face the Ducks on Friday (the location of that game is expected to be announced soon). Oregon lost its first game Sunday, 73-71 to UCLA, and will drop from its No. 8 ranking. Still, it has been a good start for a Ducks team that lost so much firepower from last season.

This series has been gaining steam since Kelly Graves took over the Ducks in 2014; his contract was extended this past week through 2028-29. Oregon has won the Pac-12 regular-season title the past three seasons, and the Ducks (2018, '20) and Cardinal (2017, '19) have alternated as league tournament champion the past four years.

A national championship by one of these teams would be another boost to the rivalry; Stanford, the only Pac-12 team to win an NCAA title, most recently won it all in 1992. Oregon was one of the favorites last season before the NCAA tournament was canceled.

South Carolina-Mississippi State: The Gamecocks, another of the favorites from last season, have dominated their marquee rivalry against the Bulldogs in the past decade, winning 14 of the past 17, including the 2017 NCAA championship game. Mississippi State is now coached by former Gamecocks assistant Nikki McCray-Penson, and the programs are set to meet Jan. 28 in Starkville, Mississippi.

South Carolina-UConn: The Gamecocks got their first victory in nine meetings with the Huskies last season. If the Gamecocks are able to win on the Huskies' turf -- they're scheduled to meet Feb. 8 at UConn -- then that rivalry takes a step forward.

UConn-Tennessee: The Huskies' 24th meeting with the Lady Volunteers is set for Jan. 21 in Knoxville, Tennessee; the Huskies lead the series 14-9.

UConn leads its matchup with Notre Dame 38-13. We'll see if that series resumes next season under Fighting Irish coach Niele Ivey, who took over this season after being part of many of those previous matchups as a Notre Dame player and assistant.

Weekly superlatives

Player of the week: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

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Rhyne Howard's clutch bucket powers Kentucky to OT win

Kentucky's Rhyne Howard grabs an offensive board and gets the follow-up shot to drop plus the foul, powering the Wildcats to a 92-86 victory over Mississippi State.

No one really needed a reminder of how good the junior guard is, but she provided it in two victories over fellow ranked SEC teams. In beating No. 10 Arkansas 75-64 on Thursday, Howard had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists for the No. 13 Wildcats. Then on Sunday in a 92-86 overtime win at No. 12 Mississippi State, she had 33 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Howard scored 25 of Kentucky's final 31 points against Mississippi State.

"What I love about Rhyne is she is so gifted, but she is unselfish," Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said. "She knows how to get her teammates involved. But when it's time to make big plays ... we put the ball in her hands."

Team of the week: Michigan

After the No. 16 Wolverines beat Wisconsin 92-49 on Thursday, they traveled to No. 15 Northwestern on Sunday. The Wildcats were coming off an upset loss at Nebraska, so they were looking to get their mojo back. Instead, Michigan moved to 7-0 with an 84-63 victory. It was another big game for junior forward Naz Hillmon, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds. She leads Michigan in averaging 24.6 points and 9.9 rebounds.

The Wolverines won't take anything for granted. But with Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin next, Michigan has a good chance to still be unbeaten when it hosts No. 25 Michigan State on Jan. 18. The Spartans are also undefeated at 8-0; they host No. 14 Maryland on Thursday.

Coach of the week: Kyra Elzy, Kentucky

As mentioned, the Wildcats came away with two big wins to begin SEC season and are now 9-1. Next are two more ranked opponents in No. 9 Texas A&M on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) and No. 5 South Carolina on Sunday (noon ET, ESPN).

It has been a strong start for Elzy in her first season as Kentucky coach. Sunday, she went against another former Tennessee alum, Nikki McCray-Penson, who is in her first season as Mississippi State coach. Former Lady Vols Kellie Harper (Tennessee) and Nikki Fargas (LSU) are also SEC coaches.

"Coach Summitt would be so proud of the Lady Vol sisterhood," Elzy said. "And that we are continuing her legacy. I know Pat is smiling down on us."

Win of the week: UCLA

The No. 11 Bruins showed moxie going into unbeaten No. 8 Oregon and getting a 73-71 victory Sunday. Senior Michaela Onyenwere had a career-high 33 points with 10 rebounds, and fresh-out-of-high-school addition Dominique Darius had two points in her first seven minutes of college play. The Bruins had not played since their 61-49 loss to Stanford on Dec. 21, and they studied that defeat.

"We talked about how many plays we didn't play our hardest and our toughest," Onyenwere said. "Those are things we can control. So that was the focus. I'm super-proud of my team for continuing to respond every time [Oregon] made a run."