A Dishin & Swishin Special Edition: UConn versus Tennessee, a series that was Unrivaled

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They are the two most recognized teams in women’s college basketball. Their worlds collided and created an unprecedented rivalry and series of games that people still talk about, revere and many hope, returns. In a word, the series between the Connecticut Huskies and Tennessee Lady Vols under legend Pat Summitt was Unrivaled.

That is the title of the new book by Jeff Goldberg, author of the 2011 book Bird at the Buzzer, recounting the storied Big East championship game between UConn and Notre Dame. In Unrivaled, Goldberg takes on the UConn-Tennessee rivalry, from its beginning in 1995 to the somewhat controversial end of the series in 2007. Over that 12-year period, the programs played each other 22 times – four times for the national championship, twice in the Final Four, and once in the Elite Eight.

Goldberg joins the Dishin & Swishin podcast for a special edition this Final Four off day, to discuss coaches Summitt and Geno Auriemma, the ESPN origination of the series, the players and participants of this theatrical drama, and the unsatisfactory to many ending of this drama, that was enacted in 22 meetings.

It was a series of runs; the Huskies won the first three meetings, and four of the first five. The Lady Vols won the next three, and four of five. UConn won six in a row from 2002 through 2004; Tennessee won the final three meetings in 2005 through 2007.

The participants were a veritable who’s who of women’s basketball. Tennessee featuring Michelle Marciniak, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Semeka “Boo” Randall, Kara Lawson and Candace Parker. UConn starred Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti, Nykesha Sales, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

“For the good of the game” was a recurring theme throughout the series, and in the end, seems to be a big part of its demise. It started in 1995 when ESPN asked Summitt to go to Storrs, Connecticut to play UConn in the middle of their conference schedule on Martin Luther King Day, who agreed “for the good of the game.”That was the same reason both programs used, however, to begin playing each other twice per season in a home-and-home series in 2000. By that time the coaches were getting somewhat tired of each other, and playing two or more times per year was the beginning of the end.

Goldberg, despite his Connecticut ties (he used to write for the Hartford Courant), gives a very evenhanded portrayal of the two programs and the climate surrounding the series. He highlights the innate differences between a Summitt, a born and bred Southerner, and wise-cracking Philadelphia immigrant Auriemma. He looks at ESPN’s role in building the series, and its impact on its demise.

The book is a fast read, with chapters being divided by season. Goldberg discusses how events like baseball’s Yankees and Red Sox chasing Cuban-born Jose Contreras as a free agent was a factor in the ill will the series sometimes had. Randall in particular is a focus, and the role she knowingly and unknowingly played in the “bad blood” of the series.

“It is fun to have lived through all this and been aware of this rivalry and its significance on women’s basketball,” said longtime women’s basketball analyst Brenda VanLengen about the series. “To read Jeff’s account and to get so many of the stories behind the stories has been entertaining and insightful for me. It’s a great read.”

Since today is a day off for women’s basketball before tomorrow’s national championship game, what better way to spend a half-hour than remembering the greatest rivalry the game has seen?

Enjoy the podcast!

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