UConn, Tennessee, and the Game That Changed Women’s Basketball
Until January 16, 1995, UConn and Tennessee had never met in women’s basketball and it might have stayed that way a while longer if not for an enterprising ESPN executive and two competition-craving coaches.
Seeking to fill a slot on ESPN’s television calendar for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1995, ESPN’s Carol Stiff pushed for a marquee women’s game, then a national programming rarity outside of March. UConn was an obvious host site, as much for the fact that the Huskies were a Top 10 team as the setting of UConn’s campus 45 miles away from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. UConn had the team and the proximity to make the gambit worthwhile.
Stiff first attempted to match the Huskies against defending national champion North Carolina. When North Carolina declined, admittedly wary of traveling north during the heart of the conference season, Stiff turned her attention to Tennessee. And like UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt was ready to toss the ball up.
Little did Stiff know what she had unlocked – a game that would launch the college game’s greatest non-conference rivalry and supercharge women’s basketball in the U.S.
The game that jumpstarted women’s basketball
In the mid-1990s, Tennessee was THE team in women’s college basketball. Over the previous nine seasons, the Lady Vols had won three national titles (1987, 1989, and 1991) and some considered Summit the top coach in college basketball – and not just women’s college basketball. All of college basketball.
UConn, meanwhile, was the plucky upstart looking to reach the mountaintop where Tennessee reigned. In the first 11 seasons of UConn women’s basketball (1974-1985), the Huskies recorded more than 10 wins only once. Auriemma’s 1985 arrival in Storrs, however, began a striking transformation. By year four, Auriemma had UConn in its first NCAA Tournament. Two seasons later, the Huskies reached the Final Four.
At the start of the 1994-1995 college basketball season, Tennessee topped the AP poll while UConn slotted in at #4. Both squads marched through the early season unscathed, making the MLK Day contest at UConn’s Gampel Pavilion a matchup between the nation’s top two teams. While Tennessee was led by Dana Johnson, Nikki McCray, and Latina Davis, UConn countered with stars Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, and Jennifer Rizzotti.
“It was a little bit more electric than usual,” Rizzotti recalled about the lead-up to Tennessee’s visit.
ESPN’s audience and a sellout crowd at Gampel were treated to an intense, back-and-forth affair between two elite teams before UConn pulled away and secured the 77-66 victory. The next day, the Huskies awoke to find themselves atop the national polls for the first time in program history.
“All of a sudden we were getting talked about on a national level,” Rizzotti said. “All of a sudden, we couldn’t go anywhere in the state of Connecticut without being like mobbed.”
Ripple effects of ‘the game’
UConn’s victory over Tennessee elevated the Huskies national profile and continued UConn’s run toward an undefeated campaign. Less than two months later, the two programs met again, this time for the national title. UConn scored a 70-64 victory in Minneapolis to finish the season 35-0.
While the Huskies’ perfect season in 1995 ignited the program’s dynastic run – now 11 national titles and counting – it also showcased the women’s game, momentum that swelled as UConn and Tennessee began an annual out-of-conference rivalry that drew eyeballs and praise. Two schools, located some 850 miles apart, had successfully altered the national perception of women’s hoops.
"UConn and Tennessee both showed that, ‘OK, if you invest in women’s basketball, you can attract a passionate fan base, you can attract and build a strong program that can accrue to your university,” women’s sports historian Cat Ariail said.
But the ripple effects of the swelling UConn-Tennessee rivalry spread beyond the college ranks.
A year after UConn and Tennessee first tussled, the NBA announced the creation of the WNBA. Around the same time a rival women’s professional league, the American Basketball League, also began U.S. operations.
When the U.S. Women’s National Team breezed to the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the profile of the women’s game further accelerated. The following June, the WNBA debuted. That the WNBA celebrated its 25th season last year is a testament to what the UConn- Tennessee rivalry helped spark and the bright spotlight two high-caliber college programs put on women’s basketball.