Once upon a time in the Land of Steady Habits, a women’s basketball series between UConn and Tennessee grew from a tiny acorn into the grand oak that shaded its sport from disinterest for more than a decade.
From 1995 to 2007, it swayed sturdily to stage 22 of the most remarkable games in history of the sport, including five Final Four matchups, sprouting WNBA all-stars, Olympians, national champions and Hall of Famers.
But then arrived the summer hurricane of 2007. Fueled by the force of growing rancor between Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, they Lady Vols uprooted the series, seemingly stunting the sport in the midst of its growth spurt.
Tennessee-UConn was a rivalry in the purest form, one which perfectly fit Auriemma’s description.
“For there to be a rivalry, the other team has to beat you on a regular basis,” Auriemma said. “Otherwise, how could there be a rivalry.”
As fate would have it, whatever loss Huskies fans and television viewers were suffering from the loss of UConn-Tennessee would immediately be replace in a visage of red and white.
“Coach always made sure that we knew the difference between losing and getting beat,” said former UConn guard Kalana Greene, who now plays with the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. “Most of the teams throughout the season we knew they could never beat us, we would have to lose to them.
“In the case of Stanford, they had one of the best coaches in college basketball. Their roster always had some of the most talented players in college basketball, and unsurprisingly some of the most athletic players, as well.
“We had played athletic teams and well-coached teams and beat them with ease, but with this team you couldn’t out run them or out jump them. It was a chess match and whoever made the right moves at the right times would win the game.
“So when we played Stanford, we knew that we were going to play the toughest mental game of our season and were facing one of the few teams (or only team) that could actually beat us.”
Stanford, the west coast powerhouse with the iconic coach in the pants, Tara VanDerveer, would beat – UConn in the national semifinals of the 2008 Final Four in Tampa, Fla.
Thanks to the coincidence and cooperation that has led to five other meetings since, including two more in the Final Four (2009 and 2010), the Huskies have met their new perfect match.
“I don’t know if there are any characteristics about it [the rivalry] that would distinquish it from the others we’ve had,” Auriemma said. “The Notre Dame rivalry [eight games in two seasons] is so familiar; we play them so much because they are in the Big East. But the Stanford rivalry has gotten interesting over the last four or five years because of the importance of the games we’ve played against each other. We’ve met so many times in the Final Four. That’s how rivalries usually become big ones. It has to do with the importance of each game you play.
“If we played played each other in the regular season, but not the NCAA Tournament, it wouldn’t be as big as it’s become. The Notre Dame rivalry became big because it led to a number of meetings in the NCAAs [three national semifinals, including the last two]. It was the same with Tennessee. And it’s that way with Stanford.
“That is what escalates a rivalry.”
And so it seems appropriate that the two shall meet again Saturday at Maples Pavilion as the top two teams in the nation. No. 1 Stanford (11-0) plays No.2 UConn (10-0) for all the marbles currently sitting on the table.
“Yeah, I would say it’s a rivalry, but more than that it’s a measuring stick,” VanDerveer said. “When we play teams like Connecticut and Tennessee, we get to find out where we are and how much more we have to do.”
“Nobody cares about rankings when the ball goes up. But I know it’s good for fans and interest in the game.”
This will be the third time in the past four years Stanford and Connecticut will play as the top two teams in the nation. It marks the 51st time the top two teams in the Associated Press Poll will play since the poll’s inception for the 1976-77 season. The No. 1 team holds a 31-19 edge and has won the past nine meetings. The last time the No. 2 team won was Feb. 25, 2006 when No. 2 North Carolina defeated No. 1 Duke, 77-65 in Chapel Hill.
What’s more, Stanford’s national-best active home winning streak is now 82 on Dec. 15 with a 78-43 win over Pacific. It dates to Nov. 28, 2007 with a 96-61 victory over San Francisco.
Not only will their high stakes, but a lot at stake, as well.
In Stanford, UConn has found a perfect foil, an opponent it can compete with without the slightest trace of acrimony. Auriemma and VanDerveer and their staffs seem not only to respect each other, but like each other’s company.
“Stanford recruits the same type of kids we do,” Auriemma said. “They are extremely well-coached and always have tough, physical players. And it’s always a challenge to play them out there. It may be the hardest place in the nation for a visiting team to play.”
For that reason, the coaches have agreed to play each other annually in the regular season until further notice. This will the fourth year they’ve alternated home sites and the 2013-14 season will begin next November with the Cardinal in Connecticut.
This will be the 14th in series history, which began in 1988 and three straight Stanford wins through the end of the 1993-94 season. UConn holds a slight 7-6 advantage.
But since UConn beat Stanford in the semifinals of the 1995 Final Four, to advance to its world-altering championship game win over Tennessee, the series has swung in the Huskies’ direction.
Stanford’s only wins over UConn in the nine games played since 1995 have come in the Sweet 16 of 2005 NCAA Tournament, that national semifinal in 2008 and on Dec. 30, 2010, when the Cardinal ended UConn’s 90-game winning streak in Palo Alto.
“Yeah, we ended their streak, and I’m sure they’d like to do the same thing to us,” Stanford guard Toni Kokenis said. “This is an opportunity for them. And I’m sure they will be ready.”
Stanford became No. 1 on November 16th by defeating Baylor, 71-69, in Hawaii. Baylor played the last 36 minutes without its All-American guard, Odessey Sims. And yet the Associated Press leapfrogged Stanford over UConn into the top spot. And they’ve been frozen in time since, six weeks, matching the program’s longest tenure at the top first set during the first six weeks of the 1996-97 season.
And more thing: UConn has lost all three games it’s played at Maples Pavilion.
“For UConn, in their eyes, I’m sure they think they deserve the No. 1 ranking and there’s an argument to be made. But they are really hungry to prove themselves,” Stanford junior Chiney Ogwumike said.