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After all this time, it's still UConn-Tennessee

He tried to deflect the continued importance of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry earlier this week.

The programs, however, are so intertwined in the history of women's basketball that UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who surpassed Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt in career victories just Tuesday with 1,099, wound up talking about his late Hall of Fame counterpart, Summitt, for most of January.

"I wish she was still coaching. I wish she was still with us coaching," Auriemma said of Summitt, who died in 2016 after waging a battle with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. "I wish I had to work a lot harder to catch her."

And now, in a twist of fate, third-ranked UConn makes the trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, to take on the 25th-ranked Lady Vols beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday (ESPN).

Tennessee (9-2) marks just the second ranked opponent this season for UConn (8-0). It is UConn's first road trip via plane this season, the first time the Huskies will play in front of fans and it is UConn's first venture to Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena since Jan. 7, 2006, an 89-80 Tennessee victory.

"I didn't realize it was 15 years between visits," Auriemma said this week. "How much has changed? Everything has changed. I'm sure the only thing that will be the same is the building that we walk into, the locker room that we use.

"... I still think going there is a difficult place to play, a difficult place to play and an even more difficult place to win. I don't think that's changed in all this time. I think if you said, 'Thursday you're playing at Tennessee,' I think that's a little bit different than if you say, 'Hey, Thursday you're playing at so-and-so.' It's one of the more difficult places to play in the country."

This will be the 24th meeting between the teams, a series which began on Jan. 16, 1995, with a 77-66 UConn victory, the Huskies overtaking the Lady Vols as the No. 1 team in the nation. The rivalry includes four national championship games, all in the UConn win column, and a few barbs between the participants.

UConn redshirt junior Evina Westbrook played at Tennessee for two seasons before transferring to the Storrs campus. She sat out last season due to the NCAA transfer rule, thus missing the resumption of the series, a 60-45 UConn win at the XL Center in Hartford.

Auriemma has won 11 national championships at UConn, Summitt eight at Tennessee, making them women's basketball's leaders in that category. Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, still active, is the all-time wins leader with 1,105.

Still, Auriemma isn't certain the rivalry is as big of a deal now as it once was. The Lady Vols are coached by Kellie (Jolly) Harper, in her second season. Harper is a 1999 graduate of Tennessee who won three straight national championships under Summitt and went 4-1 as a player vs. UConn.

"I think people have to realize it's not a big deal anymore," Auriemma said. "I mean, it's not. Whatever you want to say, it's not that big a deal anymore. We played here last year and it wasn't that big a deal. Maybe I got it all wrong, I don't know. Let's put it this way: We didn't sell out the game last year. Not even close. So how big a deal is it?

"I don't feel that buzz like I used to. I don't feel it. Maybe because it's been too long."

This exact topic came about during the 2005 season, when Tennessee was ranked 10th and UConn 15th prior to a game at the XL Center. The teams had never played each other before when one was outside the top 10.

Summitt was asked on a conference call if the game was still a big deal.

"I think it is what it is," Summitt said that day. "It's Tennessee and Connecticut. ... I know the UConn fans will be there. I know the media will be there. CBS will be there. And there will be a lot of people watching throughout the country."

"I think a lot of people worked hard to make this a big game for women's basketball nationwide," Harper said this week, asked the same question — big deal or not a big deal? — on a Zoom video conference. "And to have those games in our sport, I think, is really good because people tune in and people watch and, hopefully, they will do so on Thursday."

The game is part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Revival Series and is being played during "We Back Pat" week, an initiative established in conjunction with the Pat Summitt Foundation in support of Alzheimer's care and research. Tennessee will wear specially designed jerseys featuring a replica of Summitt's signature.

Harper has enjoyed having her former coach's persona mentioned so frequently in recent weeks with Auriemma's milestone victory.

"It's a reminder of how much we miss her being out there and how much we wish she was still coaching," Harper said. "... This is a really important week for women's basketball and for us to remember Pat's legacy."

UConn is led by freshman Paige Bueckers with 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game and junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa with 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds. Junior Christyn Williams (14.9 ppg) and Westbrook (10.5) are also averaging double figures.

Tennessee is led by 6-foot-1 junior guard/forward Rae Burrell with 16.7 points per game and 6-2 senior guard/forward Rennia Davis with 14.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. The Lady Vols are averaging 46.3 rebounds per game, a plus-15 margin over their opponents.

Said Bueckers: "I haven't personally been a part of the UConn-Tenessee rivalry but I know what it means to the program and I know how big it has been for women's basketball in general. So any game with that type of historic meaning is very important to all of us."

• UConn added a nonconference game at No. 15 Arkansas beginning at 5 p.m. Jan. 28 (ESPN2). Due to the postponement of a Big East Conference game vs. Providence due to COVID-19, UConn did not have a game scheduled for next week. The Huskies last played the Razorbacks in 1988.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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