The Masters

By Jeff Lippman - January 05, 2007

Yankees, Red Sox. Lakers, Celtics. Michigan, Ohio State. Duke, Carolina.

When these teams go head to head the result is not just another game but an epic battle with implications and consequences far greater than your average event.

These games are special. They transcend their sport and instantly guarantee the price of admission. The players and coaches circle the date on their calendars. The fans know this is the most important game on the schedule, no matter where the teams rank.

In the sport of women's college basketball, the rivalry that rises above any other is--and probably always will be--Tennessee versus Connecticut.

As the teams prepare to face each other Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut, we are reminded just how special UConn-Tennessee really is.

Sure, Maryland, North Carolina and Duke all play each other every year--Duke plays Carolina and Maryland twice a year--and they are currently ranked No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 respectively.

Let your eyes slide down the Associated Press rankings just a tad, ahh, there they are, entrenched firmly at the No. 4 and No. 5 spots, it's Tennessee and UConn.

So what is the difference? History, my friends, it's all about history.

Let me take you back to the year 1995. On January 16 of that year a Tennessee team that had already established itself as the premier women's program--already owning three national championships--traveled to Connecticut to face an up and coming undefeated Husky squad.

UConn won the battle on that day, continuing on to a magical undefeated 35-0 season and taking home its first national championship--they have won four more since.

What team did they beat in the 1995 championship game? You guessed it, Tennessee.

When the two teams decided to hook up again the next year--this time in Knoxville--the story was much the same, No. 2 UConn topped No. 4 UT for the third game in a row. The rivalry-to-be seemed, at the time, a little one-sided.

With the teams ranked exactly as they were earlier in the 1996 season, fate pit them against each other again--this time in the Final Four.

In a gut wrenching, historic back and forth battle, it was the Lady Vols who finally came out on top, defeating the Huskies in overtime and advancing to the championship game where they would ultimately defeat Georgia for their fourth national title.

A rivalry was instantly born.

Now, as we look back on the past 12 years of memorable contests between the two greatest women's college basketball programs of all time, it is shocking at how fully and completely they dominated their sport.

Until just a short while ago, in women's basketball, it was Tennessee, UConn and everybody else. Times have changed, more and more teams are gaining the talent and resources needed to compete at the highest level of women's collegiate basketball.

And still, there they reside, No. 4 and No. 5 in the country. Forever the pantheon of women's basketball. Connecticut and Tennessee are women's basketball, they put it on the map.

The all-time series between the two teams--who meet at least once per year, twice on most occassions--is a 13-8 advantage for Connecticut--keeping in mind they won the first three contests and a string of six in a row from 2002 until 2004.

They have met in the national championship game four times, with UConn winning all those matchups. They were both members of the Final Four in the years 1995, '96, '00, '02, '03 and '04. UConn went by themselves in 2001, while Tennessee danced Husky-less in 1997, '98 and '05.

So count that. That is 16 Final Fours between the two teams since 1995 alone. Is anyone else taken back by that number?

How many times have Duke and North Carolina been to the Final Four in the past 12 years? I guarantee the answer is decidedly less than 16. Try half that number, eight.

Since 1995, Tennessee and UConn have met ranked No. 1 and No. 2 five times. They have met as Top 5 teams 15 times. Only one year--2005 when UConn was ranked No. 15--did either team take anything less than a Top 10 ranking into their game.

What about coaching?

Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. Enough said. Of course, I am still going to continue.

Summitt is the winningest college coach, in any sport, of all-time, while Auriemma already owns five national championships in only 22 seasons as UConn coach.

Together they have an umimagineable 11 championships--six for Tennessee, five for UConn--in only 24 seasons of organized women's college basketball.

How about their tradition of great basketball players? How about 35 total All-Americans between the two schools.

The fact is, while Duke-UNC might be the most famous and heated rivalry of them all, Tennessee-UConn has meant more.

In the men's game, arguments can be made for Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas and so on to be called the greatest program in history. In the women's game there is only two.

Both Tennessee and UConn claim they are the nation's most dominant program. And they are both right. It is impossible to say which has been more dominant. Connecticut has won more head to head matchups, but the Lady Vols have more titles. It's a toss up, but it doesn't matter.

What matters is, when these two storied teams take the floor Saturday afternoon, everyone watching in the Hartford Civic Center and on television across the country will know for sure. This is the ultimate in women's college basketball.

It doesn't get the hype of Duke-Carolina, but maybe it should. For Duke and Carolina are just two men's basketball teams. UConn and Tennessee are the architects, the master painters, Da Vinci and Michaelangelo.

It just doesn't get any better.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 02:47 PM on January 05, 2007
Comments (1)


I'll have that cigarette now .. that was just perfect...thank you ... go Vol's

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