The Blizzard Game, puking orange, Paige Bueckers’ dagger 3: Here are some top moments in the UConn-Tennessee rivalry

This story was originally published in Jan. 2020 ahead of the UConn-Tennessee series’ revival following a 13-year hiatus. We are re-publishing it, with an update on the recent Huskies-Lady Vols showdowns, ahead of the storied programs’ matchup this Thursday, Jan. 26 in Knoxville.

I remember the blizzard game. A foot of snow was forecast for Dec. 30, 2000. The hotels in Hartford were full of UConn fans. Over 15,000 people braved the storm to come to the XL Center to watch UConn vs. Tennessee.

I remember Diana Taurasi punching the basketball stanchion at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena in 2002 because, she said later, she wanted to punch something orange. Diana hitting half-court shots and Pat Summitt lamenting that she was only a freshman. Shea Ralph saying that when she walked into Thompson-Boling Arena, it looked like somebody puked orange everywhere.

I remember the fans at Gampel Pavilion booing Semeka Randall after she shoved Svetlana Abrosimova’s head into the floor and after that, her nickname was Boo. Joking with the UConn players about Candace Parker dunking on them – nah, it wouldn’t happen – and then it did in the last game of the series, in 2007. The streaks. The books written by the coaches. Pat and Harry and Geno. The Rocky Top pools – the sports writers would try to predict how many times the Tennessee band would play “Rocky Top” during the game and honestly, it was always less than you thought because it seemed like the Tennessee band played the song constantly.

We called it “The Game.” It was such a good rivalry, UConn and Tennessee, fueled by the success of the programs and the personalities of the two coaches, even when the teams were ranked 10th (Tennessee) and 15th (UConn), like they were in 2005. It lasted 12 years, encompassing 22 games, starting with UConn’s 77-66 win in Storrs Jan. 16, 1995 and ending with Tennessee’s 70-64 win at the Civic Center Jan. 6, 2007. In 1997, the UConn women played their first game (against Tennessee) at the Civic Center because Gampel Pavilion sold out and fans were complaining they couldn’t get tickets to the game.

The rivalry was rekindled in Jan. 2020 after a 13-year hiatus, and the Huskies have won both meetings since (60-45 in 2020, 67-61 in 2021), with a top 10-matchup set for Sunday at noon at the XL Center. Here are some favorite memories:

The Blizzard Game

There was some talk that the Dec. 30, 2000 game – a rematch of the national championship, which UConn won - might have to be postponed due to the forecast but both teams were in Hartford and so was the CBS television crew. A state transportation official said the 4 p.m. tipoff of the game would come “at probably the worst time” of the storm.

But 15,500 people, including then-Gov. John Rowland showed up. The hotel lobbies downtown were overflowing with fans. The Civic Center was loud. Said one UConn fan: “I wanted to see Pat Summitt lose in real life.” He got his wish: UConn won, 81-76.

The streaks

In the third game of the series, Jan. 6, 1996, UConn beat Tennessee in Knoxville 59-53 to break the Lady Vols’ 69-game win streak. UConn lost to Syracuse a few days earlier. There was also a snowstorm that day. “Right after playing so poorly up at Syracuse, we fly down there to Tennessee and play a great game,” Auriemma told The Courant then. “We got stuck in a snowstorm [after the game]. Thank God we won. Could you imagine being stuck down there after a loss?”

Tennessee didn’t break this UConn streak but the Lady Vols were the last home loss the Huskies had between Feb. 2, 2000 and Jan. 3, 2004 when Duke beat them on a last-second shot at the Civic Center. Tennessee beat UConn 72-71 when Semeka Randall hit a shot with 4.4 seconds left on Feb. 2, 2000. UConn won 69 straight home games until the Duke loss.

The color orange

Shea Ralph once described Tennessee’s garish orange Thompson-Boling Arena as looking like “somebody puked orange everywhere.” There were 18,000 orange seats, orange banners, an orange map of Tennessee on the floor, orange baselines, orange-clad fans. The padding around the basket supports (also orange) had the years of Tennessee’s national championships listed on them and that’s what Taurasi punched in 2002. Pat also famously wore an orange pantsuit for the 1996 national championship game which is now in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Pat and Harry and Geno

“It’s nauseating,” Auriemma said. “If I see them one more time together on ESPN, I’m going to throw up.”

It was 2003, the year Villanova, coached by Geno’s friend Harry Perretta, beat UConn for the Big East championship. Villanova was having one of its best seasons ever and was in Knoxville for the regionals while UConn was in Dayton. Harry and Pat had become friends in the offseason and ESPN made much of their friendship, including the fact that Pat had given Harry an orange tie (which he wore in the regional semifinal) and that Harry and his team had visited Pat’s house before they were to play each other in the regional final.

Geno was irritated that his friend had cozied up to his biggest rival. There was more:

“Do you see Roy Williams and Gene Keady in the hot tub together going, `Yo, what do you think, man?’ C’mon,’” he told The Courant. “There are about 12 kids on Villanova’s team that somebody should be talking about. Ask one of them, ‘Do you think you’d go to the final eight at Villanova?’ Final eight of what? The Big East tournament? Now this kid’s 40 minutes from the Final Four and she’s got to read in the paper and see on ESPN how these two lovebirds are sharing information? Give me a break.”

He was joking, of course, but Summitt didn’t appreciate the sarcasm. UConn and Tennessee would meet in Atlanta in the national championship game with the Huskies winning their fourth NCAA title, 73-68.

Dueling books

In 1998, after Tennessee went undefeated (39-0) and won its sixth national championship, Pat Summitt came to enemy territory in April to promote her first book “Reach for the Summit” and drew a crowd of 669 people at Borders in Farmington. It was the biggest crowd ever at the store at that point - bigger than book signings featuring Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Rebecca Lobo and Oksana Bauil – and Pat went through four markers that day.

“I teased them about it,” Summitt said that day of coming to Connecticut. “I said, ‘Yeah, so are you going to give me a police escort?’”

Auriemma went to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in January 2006 to sign copies of his book “Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection.” He wrote about his respect for Summitt but there was still some lingering animosity after the 2003 season.

At the 2004 Final Four, a reporter asked Pat if she would pick up Geno if his car was broken down and she said yes. Geno says he would rather walk. Penn State coach Rene Portland unintentionally defused the tension between the two by accepting an award during the Final Four. In her acceptance speech, Auriemma wrote, Portland said that the only reason Tennessee was there was because of bad officiating and the only reason UConn was there was because the Huskies had played at home in the Civic Center, beating Penn State in the regional final.

Auriemma wrote: “We’re walking off the court [before the game] and I grab her arm. I say, ‘Hey, Pat, you finally have someone you can hate more than me now.’ She stops and says, ‘Who?’ “I answer, ‘Rene Portland. Did you hear what she said today?’ Pat is just as furious as I am about what Rene says. She’s in an uproar. Now it’s just before tip-off and as Pat walks by our bench, I say, `Hey. You know that quote about me saying I’d rather walk? Well, if you had your Mercedes, I’d take a ride.’ “When the game is over [UConn wins, 70-61], Pat comes over to shake my hand, and I tell her, ‘Don’t listen to all this crap you hear and read. Sometimes I just stay things for fun. It’s not meant to be at your expense. I have tremendous respect for what you’ve done, and how you do it, and that will always be true.’ She says, ‘I really appreciate that.’”

Paige Bueckers’ dagger 3

The two teams went 13 years without playing each other, but the series resumed just before the pandemic, on Jan. 23, 2020, with UConn winning, 60-45. The following year, it was like old times as the No. 3 Huskies had a dogfight on their hands in Knoxville. No. 25 Tennessee had hung with them all game, and UConn freshman Paige Bueckers was having an uncharacteristically cold shooting night. After UConn finally earned a nine-point lead in the fourth, Bueckers rolled her ankle and left the floor to get it taped, during which the Lady Vols stormed back to make it a two-point game.

The rest, as they say, is history: A hobbling Bueckers returned to the court and hit a 3-point dagger to ice the game with 25 seconds remaining, her first 3 of the night. She only scored nine points on 3 for 14 shooting, but her clutch shot on a bum ankle gave UConn the win.

Of course, the 2021 UConn-Tennessee game wasn’t just about Bueckers and her shot. In her first season playing with the Huskies since transferring from Tennessee, Evina Westbrook had one of her best games of the season with 15 points, including two huge 3s in the fourth to build UConn’s lead. Westbrook and Tennessee didn’t part ways on the best of terms, which Tennessee fans didn’t let her forget by yelling “traitor!” at her during the game. That no doubt served as extra fuel for not just the then-junior, but her teammates to take down the Lady Vols on their home turf, and it made the Huskies’ exciting win that much sweeter.

Case in point: UConn posted an Instagram of the team rallying around Westbrook post-game with the caption “it just means more.” And that night, it really did.

-Alexa Philippou

Lori Riley can be reached at lriley@courant.com.