“Everything was special”

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It’s been 27 years since the UConn-Tennessee women’s basketball rivalry began.

Back on Martin Luther King Day 1995, the No. 2 Huskies hosted the No. 1 Lady Vols at Storrs in the first meeting between the teams. Tennessee was the best in the country, with three NCAA titles in the previous eight years to set the standard in the sport.

UConn was a program trying to prove its place among the national elite after its first Final Four four years prior.

One of the best rivalries in the sport grew out of that first meeting when UConn upset Tennessee. Three months later, UConn topped Tennessee for the program’s first national championship. The Huskies own an NCAA-leading 11 national championships compared to Tennessee’s eight. UConn also leads the all-time series 15-9, including four meetings in the national title game.

On Sunday, the two will play at the XL Center at noon for the opener of their most recent home-and-away series. While Geno Auriemma still leads the Huskies (14-4, 9-0 Big East), Tennessee (19-3, 8-2 SEC) is on its second head coach since legendary Pat Summitt — Kellie Harper is on in its third season.

As the rivalry rekindles, let’s take a look back at the first encounter:

No. 2 UConn beats No. 1 Tennessee, 77-66, Jan. 16, 1995 at Gampel Pavilion

The highly anticipated game was played to a sold-out crowd at Storrs and was one of the first women’s basketball games to be nationally televised on ESPN.

“We weren’t selling consistently yet at that time, so this year was the start of the start of sales,” former UConn guard Jen Rizzotti told Hearst Connecticut Media this week. “It was a little more electric than usual. The buzz around the game was so big and everyone was so excited about it. … The energy, it was like palpable. You could feel it. It energized us, it really got us excited about the game. Everything was special.

After the Lady Vols started with back-to-back buckets, it was Rizzotti’s 3-pointer from left wing that gave UConn its first lead of the game. Rizzotti, then a junior, would finish with 17 points. The win gave UConn the program’s first No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll the following week and thrust the Huskies into the national spotlight.

“All of a sudden we were being talked about at the national level,” Rizzotti said. “All of a sudden, we couldn’t go anywhere in the state of Connecticut without being mobbed. We couldn’t go to the mall anymore, we couldn’t go out to eat anymore. It was like we instantly became celebrities that season. It felt like a change from what was to come. It was crazy. We felt it. We were a bit on top, I would say, for the rest of this season.

Three months later, UConn beat Tennessee again. This time it was in Minneapolis where the Huskies ended their perfect season with the program’s first national championship.

“I guess maybe that was how people felt when they beat UConn now, but when we beat them it felt like we beat the best,” Rizzotti said. “We beat Pat Summitt. We beat Tennessee, like we did, we got there. There was this feeling of being respected and making people believe that we were for real, that it was a test that we had to pass. And it’s obviously a sign of respect to Pat and the program she built that we felt that way about beating them.

Over the next 12 years, UConn beat Tennessee 13 times in 22 meetings, including six straight wins from 2002-2004. The streak ended after 2007 and didn’t start again until 2020. UConn swept Tennessee in the home-and-away series the past two seasons. The rivalry was renewed for another round trip last June.

“The UConn players, even though they haven’t played in that kind of rivalry, they’ve watched it,” Rizzotti said. “If they were UConn fans growing up, they were part of it. They felt it as they made their choice to go to the University of Connecticut. It’s kind of built into the fact that you don’t like Orange. Now they’re here and they can live it and they can hear about the stories and see the interviews of former players and how much the rivalry meant and I think that makes them want to make sure that they live up to that standard and continue the legacy to win the game.

Where are they now? Catching up with the 1994-95 Huskies

Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey: Ten national titles later, the duo continues to lead the Huskies. This season marks Auriemma’s 37th at the helm with an overall record of 1,133-148.

Tonya Cardoza: The former Virginia women’s basketball star spent 14 years at Storrs as an assistant coach working primarily with UConn guards. Cardoza became the head coach of Temple University in 2008 and is the program’s career winning streak leader with an overall record of 248-182.

Kim (better) Thompson: Averaged 4.8 points in 33 games as a junior that season. Graduated from UConn School of Engineering, lives in the Washington DC area.

Missy (Rose) McTiernan: A sophomore in the first game with Tennessee, graduated from UConn in 1997. She is superintendent of schools for the school district of Scranton (Pennsylvania).

Jen Rizotti: The UConn junior point guard finished the game with 17 points. Prior to her current role as president of the Connecticut Sun, the Connecticut native spent time coaching the University of Hartford (17), George Washington (five) and Team USA.

Brenda Marquis: Spent just two seasons playing for the Huskies before deciding to focus on his studies. She was a freshman in the Tennessee game in 1995. Now married to former UConn offensive football coordinator Norries Wilson, Minnesota director of player development.

Carla Berube: The former UConn guard is in his second season as Princeton head coach. Previously, she spent 17 years as a head coach at Tufts. She was named the 2020 Ivy League Coach of the Year after leading the Tigers to a 26-1 record and ending the year on a 22-game winning streak.

Pam (Webber) Mitchell: Mitchell now lives in State College, Pennsylvania and works as a physical therapist. She is married to former UConn football player Scott Mitchell. In 1995, she was senior captain of the Huskies in their game against the Lady Vols.

Jamelle Elliot: This year marks Elliott’s 14th season as an assistant coach on the UConn staff. After ending her career at UConn with the second-highest rebounds of all time (1,054), she was on Auriemma’s staff before serving as head coach at Cincinnati from 2009 to 2018.

Gay Kelley (Hunt): Hunt was a freshman in 1995 against Tennessee. She is now vice president of corporate marketing and financial services communications at OneAmerica.

Jill Gelfenbien: A walk-on from UConn in 1995, the Wethersfield native only played one season for the Huskies. She helped UConn to a Final Four in women’s basketball and women’s soccer.

Nykesha Sales: One of the Husky greats, Sales played in the WNBA from 1999 to 2007. The Bloomfield native joined the UCF coaching staff in 2016 and remains an assistant coach under Katie Abrahamson-Henderson.

Sarah (Northway) Maria: Maria missed the 1994-95 season after being traded from Arizona, but was still present with the team at games and practices. After graduating from UConn in 1997, she earned a law degree from Georgetown and became a corporate finance lawyer. She coaches her daughters in basketball and went to the same high school as the mother of current Husky point guard Paige Bueckers.

Rebecca Lobo: After ending her WNBA career in 2003, Lobo remained involved in women’s basketball and became an analyst and reporter with ESPN in 2004, often calling UConn games. She was senior captain during the 1995 season and national player of the year.

Kara Wolter: Wolters was just a sophomore in 1995 and went on to an impressive career, leading the Huskies to a 132-8 record. She graduated as the Huskies career leader in rebounds with 1,286. She retired from the WNBA in 2003 and now works as a studio analyst with SNY during UConn games.

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