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Lady Vols vs. UConn: Here's why the rivalry is so important

The two legendary women's basketball teams will meet again on January 21. Their storied rivalry changed the game for everyone else.

Editor's Note: This story was originally published before the UT/UConn rivalry was renewed. UConn defeated the Lady Vols 60-45 on January 23, 2020. They play again on January 21, 2021 at 7 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena. The game will be televised on ESPN2. No future games have been scheduled at this time.

It's been more than 13 years since the Lady Vols last met the Lady Huskies on the basketball court on Jan. 6, 2007.

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The two legendary programs are meeting again in a renewal of a rivalry that put the national spotlight on women's basketball for the first time.

A lot has changed since then, mostly for the team in orange. 

The Lady Vols won two more national championships, then lost legendary coach Pat Summitt to early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2016. It was a heartbreaking personal and professional loss. Her successor, longtime assistant Holly Warlick, failed to live up to lofty expectations and despite four Elite 8 appearances, the team dropped from its usual national prominence.

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The University of Connecticut, on the other hand, just kept getting better under Coach Geno Auriemma. They've won six national championships since the last time they played the Lady Vols and appeared in every Final Four.

The rivalry wasn't really that long, just over a decade, but its importance to women's basketball can't be understated.

Lady Vols legend Pat Summitt and UConn's Geno Auriemma are currently tied for the second-most NCAA national championship titles with eight. But if Auriemma wins tonight, Summitt will drop to the third-most NCAA wins.

When it started, the Lady Vols were the nation's most storied program, with three national championship banners already hanging in Thompson-Boling Arena.

UConn was the up-and-coming team and Coach Summitt agreed to play them on their home court in a then-rare nationally televised women's basketball game. Summitt had always wanted to do "what was best for the game," and this was it.

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The Lady Vols lost that first meeting in Storrs, Connecticut, on Jan. 16, 1995. Then they lost again to UConn later that year in the NCAA finals, giving Auriemma his first of 11 national championships.

The teams clashed a total of 22 times. In many seasons they played twice, once in the regular season and then again in the NCAA tournament. They combined to win nine NCAA championships during the twelve-year rivalry, Tennessee with five and UConn with four. UConn actually won more games in the rivalry, leading the series 13-9.

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Both teams got better. More eyes than ever before were on women's basketball. Other programs saw their success and wanted to duplicate it, to compete with the best of the best. Everyone got better.

Then it all ended.

At the end of the 2006-07 season, Pat Summitt announced the series was off. She and Auriemma clashed on and off the court, and she said she wasn't happy with the way UConn was recruiting. So she called it off.

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There was disappointment on both sides. There were bitter words and accusations, but it was over. And while the Lady Vols have been struggling, the rest of women's basketball has kept getting better.

Now the rivalry will be renewed on Jan. 23 in Hartford. A nationally televised Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame game at 7 p.m. on ESPN. They'll play in Knoxville next year.

Coach Holly Warlick agreed to the two-season rematch in 2018, for the good of the game and for a good cause.

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Proceeds will benefit the Hall of Fame and The Pat Summitt Foundation, which raises money for Alzheimer's research. The game was UConn's We Back Pat game, a tradition started by the SEC after Summitt's death to raise awareness for Alzheimer's disease.

Warlick was replaced as head coach last year by another former player, Kellie Harper Jolly. She was on the team in the early days of the rivalry with UConn and finished 4-2 against them in her career and won three national championships with the Lady Vols during those years.

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She may be the perfect person to lead the Lady Vols into this renewed rivalry with an old nemesis. In her first year as head coach, there appears to be a resurgence in confidence in the program. The Lady Vols are 15-3 so far this season and are ranked No. 23 nationally.

UConn comes into the game with the edge, with a 16-1 record and ranked No. 3 in the country, but they haven't won a national championship in three years. That sounds like a criticism, but it's now the measuring stick for that legendary program.

One that was once commonly used for Tennessee, which hasn't won an NCAA Championship since 2007.

Right now, the rivalry is only scheduled to be renewed for two seasons. It remains to be seen if it will continue beyond that.

Women's basketball is different now, with many more powerhouse teams always vying for the championship. Baylor. Notre Dame. South Carolina. Mississippi State. Those are just a few of the schools that have rivaled UConn in recent years to be the best of the best.

The Lady Vols hope to return to that elite level this season. This renewed rivalry with Connecticut could help get them there. For the good of the game, just like Pat wanted.

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