On Pat Summitt, UConn, and Women’s Basketball

I am from Connecticut. Winter in Connecticut is long. Winter in Connecticut is cold. And to be honest, winter in Connecticut is pretty boring. We Nutmeggers generally have to find their own fun in those frozen, dark months.

I was born in 1991, which happens to coincide with the UConn women’s basketball team’s inaugural run to the Final Four. As a result, my family began to fill these winters by following the team as they attempted to join the greats of the sport.

In the early nineties, Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols were those undisputed greats of women’s basketball. In her first 10 years at the program, her teams had won three national titles and over 400 games while taking on traditional powers like Louisiana Tech, a formidable record. When UConn upset the Vols in Connecticut in 1995, the annual regular season game between these two teams became must-see television every winter.

One of my first sports memories was going to a UConn-Tennessee game in downtown Hartford in 2003 during a blizzard. It might not have been the smartest decision to brave the weather in hindsight, but oh, was it worth it. UConn star Diana Taurasi hit two three-point shots to end each half, one from three quarters of the court and another to send the game to overtime, and I still maintain that was the loudest I have ever heard a crowd in my life. I recently re-watched that game, and it’s still one of those stellar performances between two teams trading runs through an exhilarating couple hours.

Most of the UConn-Tennessee games were like that; few were blowouts, and for dominant teams like UConn and Tennessee, a non-blowout was rare. Yes, we would still watch the rest of the UConn season and other teams would get a good string of recruits and challenge UConn and Tennessee. But that Tennessee game was something we looked forward to every winter. It was sure to be an exciting pick-me-up on a cold Connecticut winter afternoon or evening. Summitt’s orange-clad Lady Vols were the gold standard for consistent excellence in women’s basketball long before UConn rose to prominence. Beating Summitt’s team was the sign that UConn had arrived or was the superior program in that year.

We all also owe Summitt a debt of gratitude for promoting women’s basketball in ways other than fielding an excellent team. She didn’t have anything to gain by traveling to Connecticut in 1995 to take on at that time an upstart program in UConn other than to promote competition in her sport, but she did it with gusto. When UConn took her team by surprise that year, she didn’t shy away from the challenge, and offered to schedule a regular season game that was my family’s and the entire sports’ highlight of the winter. This willingness to promote the sport was obvious even when I re-watched that 2003 game; for that nationally televised game, Summitt was outfitted with a microphone on the sidelines and let a television crew into the locker room, an unusual practice at the time to provide fans and observers a new style of coverage for the sport.

Since the annual UConn-Tennessee series ended in 2007, no new rivalry has recaptured the drama of those two teams playing for the betterment of the sport. The series was the product of Summitt’s relentless efforts to give her sport the best media exposure possible, and two teams that could consistently play at a high level. The current UConn phenomenon of four straight titles and gaudy winning streaks would probably not be getting the appreciation it deserves if it were not for Summitt’s willingness to come to Storrs in 1995 and continue the series. Even though Tennessee has not gotten the opportunity to play UConn since their 2007 win, I will still look forward to that future NCAA tournament game between UConn and Tennessee out of nostalgia for that regular season series and out of respect for what it has done for the women’s game.

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