UConn-Tennessee: Inside the year the rivalry hit its boiling point

Pat vs. Geno was a rivalry for the ages (2:55)

Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt's relationship was less than amicable, which led to UConn vs. Tennessee being one of the most heated rivalries in college basketball. (2:55)

Editor's note: This story was originally published in January 2020.

In her first game at Tennessee, in January 2000, UConn's Sue Bird looked around at the 23,385 Lady Vols fans and thought, "It's like everyone threw up orange in here."

Tennessee's Tamika Catchings said of her final trip with the Lady Vols to Hartford, Connecticut, in December 2000, "One thing I'll always remember from the last time I played UConn: My jersey got stolen."

UConn and Tennessee played four times in the 2000 calendar year, one of the most eventful periods the top rivalry in women's basketball had. The Huskies and Lady Vols met in January, February, April and December -- in four different arenas -- including for an NCAA title. This year further fueled a rivalry that took the game to its greatest heights. But it would become increasingly contentious before Tennessee coach Pat Summitt ended the series in 2007.

It returns Thursday in Hartford (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), with some alumni from the 13-season series -- UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and assistants Chris Dailey and Shea Ralph, and Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper -- involved. The games this year and next benefit The Pat Summitt Foundation. (Summitt died in 2016 of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type).

The game's current players are too young to recall much, if anything, about the rivalry. To explain what made it so special, we asked several of the key figures who experienced it to reflect on the year that helped push this rivalry to full throttle.

Jan. 8, 2000: No. 1 UConn 74, No. 2 Tennessee 67

Saturday afternoon, Jan. 8, Knoxville, Tennessee: The No. 1-ranked Huskies vs. the No. 2 Lady Vols. The series, tied 4-4, had become the biggest draw in women's basketball, a matchup of contrasts: North vs. South; a traditional power (Tennessee had six NCAA titles) vs. a rising power (UConn had one); a coach who grew up in rural Tennessee and was a beloved pioneer in the sport vs. a wisecracking guy from Philadelphia who loved verbal sparring. Thompson-Boling Arena was packed.

Sue Bird, UConn guard, 1998-2002: One of the final things that Coach Auriemma said to calm us down was, "If you took away the arena, the fans, and it was just our team vs. their team, you'd probably kick their ass." His point was, relax and play your game, because you're the better team.

Tamika Catchings, Tennessee forward, 1997-2001: Facing UConn, Pat genuinely tried to make it like every other game ... but it wasn't like every other game. In those games, you find out who's not ready for that level.

Swin Cash, UConn forward, 1998-2002: Pat knew my style because she had recruited me for so long. Throughout my career, even after going to UConn, every time that Pat Summitt saw [me], she always asked, "How's your mom doing? How's your family?"

Bird: One thing for me, different from Swin, was that Tennessee never recruited me. They had two freshman point guards they'd signed, Kara Lawson and April McDivitt, players I'd played against in AAU. I've always had a ton of respect for Pat Summitt and their program, but I really didn't give a s---: I just wanted to beat them. They were kind of the team of the times then. Connecticut had won only one championship, so we were still trying to establish ourselves.

Bird was a sophomore, but facing Tennessee for the first time because she missed most of her freshman season with a knee injury. She went 8-of-10 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the free throw line for 25 points, plus two assists and four steals, as the Huskies won 74-67.

Bird: It had crossed my mind the year before when we played Tennessee and I was hurt -- Thank God, I'm not out there -- because I wasn't ready. Fast-forward a year, and people were saying, "UConn has all this talent, but there's a huge question mark at point guard." That game ended up setting the tone for what kind of player I was going to be: One who in big moments tends to play her biggest. I didn't know it going in; I probably even surprised myself.

Feb. 2, 2000: No. 4 Tennessee 72, No. 1 UConn 71

In 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, UConn and Tennessee played twice during the regular season, each getting a home game. Thus, the Lady Vols had a chance to avenge that January 2000 loss soon after, as the teams met Wednesday, Feb. 2, in Storrs, Connecticut, before 10,027 fans at Gampel Pavilion.

Semeka Randall, Tennessee guard, 1997-2001: They came on our court and beat us. We were upset. And that's a polite way of putting it. So we wanted to come back and redeem ourselves up there in Storrs.

Randall, who like Cash had been heavily recruited by both schools, had become Public Enemy No. 1 to UConn fans the year before in Storrs, when she and the Huskies' Svetlana Abrosimova had a skirmish as they battled for possession. UConn fans booed Randall the rest of that 1999 game, but it just fired her up; she scored 25 points in a 92-81 victory, and "Boo" became the nickname she still goes by today.

Cash: We used to always joke about Sveti being the golden child. Like, "Oh, boy, Meek might as well forget it. She will be hated in [Connecticut] forever."

Randall: When I picked Tennessee over UConn, Geno said, "That's all right, then, we'll kick your butt, don't worry about it." I liked his challenge. I said, "I'm going to kick your butt back, too." It was one of those things just passing between people who just love the game, love to compete.

This time, Randall scored 17 points and hit the game-winning shot with 4.4 seconds left as Tennessee rallied from a six-point halftime deficit and prevailed 72-71. It ended up being UConn's only loss of the 1999-2000 season.

Shea Ralph, UConn guard, 1996-2001: Semeka Randall hit that shot on Sveta and I; she split our trap. We had made some good plays, and then that one just broke our backs, and it was my fault. For weeks, I was angry about it. I remember feeling like, "There's no way in hell that's going to happen again."

April 2, 2000: No. 1 UConn 71, No. 2 Tennessee 52

UConn and Tennessee were No. 1 seeds in the 2000 NCAA tournament, and both reached the Final Four in Philadelphia, near where Auriemma grew up (Norristown, Pennsylvania). When Tennessee beat Rutgers and UConn topped Penn State in the semifinals, it set up the second NCAA final between the Huskies and Lady Vols, this one with much more bad blood than the first in 1995.

Auriemma was fully in his element. He had a big party the night before the final, and later wrote in his book, "Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection" that he thought at the time, "I can't believe how much fun it is." He held court with the media, including his jokes about rival Philly cheesesteak restaurants named Pat's and Geno's across the street from each other: "Pat's is older and more dilapidated. Geno's is bigger and brand-new." [Auriemma declined to be interviewed for this piece.]

Summitt tried to stay above the fray, which was typical for her. As she later wrote in the book, "Sum It Up:" "I tried to be correct and decorous in public; Geno was a smart-ass who would take negative attention over no attention at all. The differences would define our relationship sharply over the years, but we also had more characteristics in common than people would suppose." But Lady Vols fans were incensed, and the pot was on full boil.

Cash: We were laughing our behinds off at [the animosity between Auriemma and Summitt]. It almost got to a point where both of them were becoming so much larger than life. People were asking us for comments. I remember myself treading lightly; I respected and loved Pat so much. Being in Philadelphia, it was such a homecoming for Coach. It was like, "Would this be a storybook ending for him?"

In Auriemma's book, he criticized Tennessee center Michelle Snow for swearing at him during the championship game after he had yelled at one of his players, Asjha Jones, to "Take her! Take her!" when Snow was guarding her. Snow acknowledges she'd been angered all during the Final Four with some of the jokes Auriemma had made at Summitt's expense.

Michelle Snow, Tennessee center, 1998-2002: Geno is a great coach, but I was irritated, like, "You can't disrespect our coach." The team felt that way, because we all were reading and seeing this stuff. She had fought for us, so it was our time to fight for her.

Bird: That whole thing played right into our hands. What that banter did for Coach Auriemma was kind of build his confidence. The shootaround the day of the final, he was just so loose; he was laughing and joking -- and he's not one to do that before big games.

Debby Jennings, Tennessee media relations coordinator, 1977-2012: There were so many sideshows at that Final Four. I think Pat was OK to let it play out. The thing that left a sour taste in our mouths was we had the first practice for that Sunday shootaround, and that's when Ace got hurt. It was just like a blow to everybody's heart.

The two shootarounds before the final on Sunday, April 2, couldn't have been more different. In contrast to UConn's light-hearted workout, Tennessee lost junior point guard Kristen "Ace" Clement, who was eager to play in the championship game in her hometown of Philadelphia. She injured her right ankle when she attempted a layup and landed on Snow's foot.

Snow: Ohhhh, I still carry that with me. Then I was beating myself up all day, saying, "You better come to play tonight, because you kinda took out your own teammate." Of course, it was just an accident; it could have been anybody. But it was a weight, and it weighed on the whole team.

Tennessee still had a strong guard corps, but the Huskies had a perfect game plan.

Cash: It was like -- excuse my French -- we were going to backdoor their asses off.

Randall: We got backdoored like crazy; it was like we never played defense. We couldn't score. We got frustrated.

Catchings: If we could just do that day over again, what would we have done differently? I wish I would have said to the team, "Come on, we can win this. Ace will still be there on the bench with us." But I think we kept hoping Ace would come back with some miraculous treatment.

Bird: Like I said, Coach was so relaxed, and we were just like, "Cool," and went along with him. We played loose, like we were just having fun. And the score tells the story.

UConn won 71-52, clinching the program's second NCAA title. The Huskies shot 50.8% from the field, held Tennessee to 31.4 percent, and forced 26 turnovers. Huskies center Kelly Schumacher blocked nine shots, still a championship game record. Ralph led UConn with 15 points, seven assists and six steals, and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player.

Ralph: Because I had so many injuries, I really tried to soak in every moment. I remember feeling elated when we were beating the crap out of them, because it's Tennessee, and it's the national championship game.

Randall: Oh man, I was numb. Then the next day, I went to Coach's house. We might have watched the game two times in a row, just reminiscing about what we didn't do. We were just really not happy about the opportunity we missed out on. But that was my junior year, so I was coming back.

The Huskies got to celebrate during that summer of 2000, and they knew they had another big weapon coming in for the next season: freshman guard Diana Taurasi. She would go on to face Tennessee eight times in her career. UConn won seven of those games, including twice in NCAA finals.

Asjha Jones, UConn forward, 1998-2002: Coach made it pretty clear [Taurasi] was someone we had to have on our team. At first, she was more just wanting to be a part of things and not disrupt the flow we had. But we were like, "Nope, you're here; let's go." Because we knew how good she really was; we saw it right away.

Cash: The 2000 national championship game, to us, was the moment of "We're taking control of this [series]." We felt like the style of play we were going to [exhibit], how we were going to execute, how we were going to defend ... we were going to be better.

Randall: They started having much more confidence. And they started to get the best of us. It really pissed us off.

Dec. 30, 2000: No. 1 UConn 81, No. 2 Tennessee 76

Tennessee played a much-publicized outdoor game against Arizona State at the Diamondbacks' Bank One Ballpark on Dec. 27, 2000. Then it was on to Hartford to face UConn on Dec. 30 before 16,294 fans. Bird and Ralph had 15 points each, as the Huskies won 81-76. Taurasi made her debut in the rivalry with 12 points, including a catch-in-the-air-and-spin-around-for-a-layup that had jaws dropping. Afterward, Summitt said, "Four years of that, imagine. I don't want to think about it." Auriemma said of Taurasi, "When she matures, I hope she holds on to her freewheeling style, because it's kind of fun to watch."

Bird: Enter Diana, who was extremely confident the second she stepped on campus. That play was like her introduction to everybody. Like, there's a new sheriff in town.

Catchings had 17 points in the loss. After the game, her No. 24 jersey was stolen from a laundry bag that was briefly left unattended in a Hartford hotel hallway. Tennessee next played Rutgers at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Jan. 2, so Catchings wore the spare jersey that had been packed, No. 50 (which she says didn't fit).

Something much worse was coming, though: On Jan. 15, 2001, Catchings tore the ACL in her right knee, ending her Tennessee career. The Lady Vols still beat UConn in Knoxville 92-88 on Feb. 1, the night that program legend Chamique Holdsclaw's jersey was retired. But Tennessee later lost to Xavier in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, UConn had its own heartbreaks, as Abrosimova's and Ralph's senior seasons were cut short due to injury before the NCAA tournament. The Huskies lost to eventual champ Notre Dame in the 2001 national semifinals. The next season, with Bird, Cash, Jones and Tamika Williams as seniors, they went unbeaten.

Ralph: You just never know what your body will allow, or how the stars are going to align for you. I got to play in just one national championship game, in 2000. And it was against Tennessee. But during my career, and with Sue and Swin's class, and when Diana got here, that's when UConn really became the UConn everybody knows. When I got here, Tennessee was the team to beat. I enjoyed being part of turning the tide a bit.

After the 2000-01 season, the UConn-Tennessee rivalry would continue for 10 more games. In all, the teams played 22 times, with UConn winning 13, including all four NCAA finals.

Tennessee athletic director and former football Vols coach Phillip Fulmer: I have such great respect for this rivalry and the intensity of it. You had Pat on one end and Geno on the other, obviously two of the greatest to have ever coached in the history of women's basketball. ... I don't think there was any question that people (outside the basketball world) paid attention to it every year. It's two great schools with fantastic histories and two great environments.

After the rivalry

But Summitt ended the regular-season series after the 2007 season; the recruitment of Maya Moore, who chose UConn in 2006 and went on from 2007 to 2011 to become the Huskies' all-time leading scorer, had made things particularly strained between the programs.

They could have met in the 2008 NCAA final, but UConn lost in the semifinals to Stanford, which then lost to Tennessee. That was Summitt's eighth and final national championship. UConn now has 11 NCAA titles, including four in a row from 2013 to 2016.

Since Summitt's death, Auriemma has been conciliatory about his personal rivalry with the legendary coach, saying "she defined college basketball" and championing The Pat Summitt Foundation upon the announcement in August 2018 that the UConn-Tennessee rivalry would be renewed.

"Here's the thing that would distinguish the UConn rivalry for me," Summitt wrote in "Sum It Up." "It made everybody better."

But tensions remain between the programs -- the denial of a transfer waiver to allow former Lady Vol Evina Westbrook to play at UConn this season provoked a new round of bad feelings between the programs, one that figures to be a theme on Thursday night.

For their parts, Abrosimova, Cash, Catchings, Jones, Lawson, Randall, Schumacher, Snow and Williams retired following WNBA careers; Bird and Taurasi are still playing. The year 2000 is now two decades in the past, but the feelings of the rivalry will return when the Huskies and Lady Vols take the court again.

Bird: I think it's great that UConn-Tennessee is coming back. On another note, it makes me sad that it ever went away. We had all this momentum, which is great for a sport, and then it just stopped. I wonder what would have happened if the rivalry never went away.

Jones: It's been dormant for so long, and Pat is no longer here. So I'm nervous that it's not going to generate the same feeling it did back then. But I'm anxious to see it happen, and I'm glad they're rekindling it.

Catchings: I think it will be bittersweet, but I'm excited about it. There's something about it ... even when you talk about it, your heart beats a little faster.

Randall: I loved every minute of playing in that series, whether win or loss. I know for a fact that I laid everything out there on the line. And if I had it to do over again, I would love to be in it again.