Published April 06, 2004
NEW ORLEANS – Ashley Robinson and Diana Taurasi defy the commonly held notion about the basketball (search) rivalry between Tennessee and Connecticut.
Two teams that can't stand each other, right? The traditional women's basketball power (Tennessee) and the usurper (Connecticut). Two coaches whose relationship is icy, at best.
So what happened the last time Robinson and Taurasi saw each other?
"I gave her a hug and talked to her a little bit," said Robinson, who starts at center for Tennessee and has known the UConn (search) star since she was 13.
The next time they embrace, one of their teams will be the national champion. Connecticut and Tennessee will meet for the title Tuesday night, the fourth time they've faced each other in the championship game, and what an interesting twist to this one.
Connecticut is trying to win its third straight title and fourth in five years. It will also try to make it an unprecedented double for the school. After the men's team beat Georgia Tech (search) on Monday night, a win by the women would make Connecticut the first school to sweep both championships.
Standing in the Huskies' way is the only school that has won three in a row.
"It's kind of fitting, but I don't think it's something we're worried about," UConn's Barbara Turner said. "Not to avoid the question, but we're just worried about playing harder and smarter than them for 40 minutes."
Another title for UConn would make it even more clear that the Huskies have supplanted Tennessee as the pre-eminent program in the women's game.
Tennessee has won six titles, but none since 1998. Even Tennessee's Shanna Zolman said this is "Geno's era," a reference to UConn's brash, successful coach, Geno Auriemma.
That's what gives this rivalry a buzz, no matter how many times they meet in the finals. Connecticut won the three previous title games against Tennessee and also beat the Lady Vols in the semifinals en route to the 2002 championship.
Yes, there's a pattern here. And after all the talk this season about parity and balance in women's basketball, the two giants again are the last ones standing.
"That's just the way it seems to work out, doesn't it?" Auriemma said. "I feel real good that three out of the four (championship games), we have beat the team that everybody associates with the best team, the best program over the last 20-some years.
"So it's only fitting that if you want to win, that's who you've got to beat. And if they want to win, they've got to beat us."
The Lady Vols are looking to do just that. They've got some turf to protect, after all. They like being the only program with three straight titles, which Tennessee accomplished from 1996-98.
"We don't want UConn at all up there in the ranks with us," Zolman said. "We would love nothing more than to be able to not only get a ring ourselves, but also not allow them to get three in a row. We're going to be working hard for that, I guarantee it."
Connecticut (30-4) kept its title hopes alive with a 67-58 victory over Minnesota on Sunday night. Tennessee (31-3) beat LSU 52-50, its third straight two-point victory decided in the final two seconds.
But whatever the circumstances when these two teams get together, the subject of Auriemma's relationship with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt is bound to surface. That's about all that was discussed before last year's game, played after Auriemma's crack that Tennessee was the "Evil Empire."
"We really don't have a relationship," Summitt said. "I don't have his cell number. We don't talk. We speak before and after the games. That's it. But that's the relationship that Geno worked very hard to create."
Summitt finds that puzzling because Connecticut has dominated her team recently. The Huskies have won five straight against the Lady Vols and seven of the last eight, including an 81-67 victory in Knoxville this season.
"You would think as many times as he has beaten us, he would feel sorry for me and talk to me," Summitt said.
Auriemma seemed tired of the whole thing.
"That's irrelevant," he snapped. "Only thing that exists is UConn plays Tennessee, five-on-five in basketball."
Taurasi, never one to shy away from an opinion, has her own take on that.
"Anybody who knows Pat Summitt knows she's not evil," Taurasi said. "I just think that's hype."
Just one more layer to the best rivalry in women's basketball.