Nichols: Not a big deal? Lady Vols show growth, dispel Auriemma’s claims in latest Tennessee-UConn clash

No. 25 Tennessee lost to third-ranked UConn 67-61 on Thursday night. Despite a smaller crowd than usual, the game brought back memories of the greatest battles between Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma, proving that this game remains a fierce rivalry.

If a back-and-forth, rivalry-renewing clash between Tennessee and UConn isn’t a “big deal,” what would you call it?

Geno Auriemma must have a better vocabulary than I do. Because that’s exactly what he said four days ago.

His antics on Thursday night proved differently, though, as did the crowd’s interest and the amount of hype leading toward tip-off.

Auriemma paced in front of his team in Thompson-Boling Arena, getting as emotionally involved as we’ve ever seen.

And Kellie Harper? She screamed at her players from a crouch, hovering just above The Summitt’s floor — her best impression of the court’s namesake.

But between the polished wooden checkerboards, away from the socially-distanced bench chairs and in front of a crowd one-fifth the size we would usually see for this game, Tennessee and Connecticut battled in a way that hasn’t been seen in more than a decade.

Now, I’m not saying that game had the same level of intensity that it would have if Pat Summitt were still coaching. 

Not because the final score would have changed, though — no one could predict that. No, the intensity would have been greater because of the charisma and power Summitt carried to the floor.

Harper said it best: “Pat’s legacy was about so much more than numbers.”

And she’s right, especially since Auriemma entered Thursday night’s game having topped Summitt in wins against Butler earlier this week. He earned his 1,100th victory in Knoxville.

But with the effort the twenty-fifth-ranked Lady Vols showed, fighting tooth-and-nail against a UConn team that remains undefeated, they lived that Summitt legacy until the bitter end. 

Not a big deal? The pregame storylines, passion between every whistle and postgame statistics would beg to differ.

67-61 was the final score. Huskies freshman Paige Bueckers beat the shot clock for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, icing the game with 25 seconds left. UConn added another point at the charity stripe for the final margin.

Prior to Bueckers’ dagger, the Lady Vols had clawed back into the game after leading by four to start the final quarter. Tennessee led by one at the half, too, but the fourth period brought a 9-0 Huskies run and shots that just couldn’t fall for the Lady Vols.

“We felt like we could have won the game,” Harper said. “We felt that way going in and felt that way throughout the game. When you can't pull those off, it stings."

This game marked Tennessee’s second second-half collapse in three matchups, as Harper’s team sacrificed a 15-point lead against Georgia before rebounding against Alabama. 

Still, the Lady Vols showed something different against the Huskies. Moreover, the growth from last year’s 15-point Tennessee loss in Storrs was striking.

“The good thing is that the losses that we have had, we have come out of those better,” Harper said. “I don’t ever want to get complacent and accustomed to losing, so that's not what I'm talking about. But afterwards, does it make you a better basketball team? Can we grow from it? We've been able to do that, so hopefully that can continue."

Since Harper’s hiring in April of 2019, the improvements from Tennessee have been remarkable. That success marks another program that new athletic director Danny White won’t have to address.

After all, the only one that truly needs fixing is housed in that giant brick cathedral on Phillip Fulmer Way. 

The programs that call Thompson-Boling Arena home are doing just fine.

Despite the small crowd on Thursday, the tension was palpable. Every call received a complaint, every bucket a sigh of relief or exasperation.

Sure, it wasn’t quite the same as when Summitt roamed the sidelines, or when she and Auriemma traded blows at the Final Four. 

No Tennessee-UConn matchup will ever come close to what they were, as players caught glimpses of previous meetings on television leading up to the game. 

But Thursday night, which marked the second annual matchup after a break for more than a decade, was still special.

“Our players were letting me know they were watching me play on TV,” Harper said. “I don't know if I like that too much before the game. I don't know if that was very motivating to watch me. I think one of the things that we're trying to do is get eyes on this game, get eyes on women's basketball and build it up.”

The latest clash did just that. 

"That's probably going to be one of the best environments of the year for a regular season game,” Harper said. “I'm really thankful and grateful to our fans for coming out.”

“Obviously, we wish we would have been on the other side of it,” she added. “But I think it was a competitive game that probably looked good on television."

That competitiveness took a backseat during pregame, as Harper and Auriemma took the floor to donate a $20,000 check to the Pat Summitt Foundation and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

But the rivalry resumed when the ball tipped, even extending to the visiting team’s roster.

Former Lady Vol Evina Westbrook transferred to UConn in 2019, a move most Tennessee fans would consider detestable.

Thursday marked her first return to Knoxville.

“It was not an easy thing for her coming down here, but I thought she was unbelievably good,” Auriemma said. “It couldn't have been easy coming back here, as it never easy when someone goes back to where they were playing before, but I couldn't have asked her to play any better, for sure."

Westbrook finished with 15 points, but Christyn Williams led the Huskies with 20.

For Tennessee, four Lady Vols finished in double figures. Tamari Key and Marta Suarez had 10 points apiece, and Rae Burrell and Rennia Davis led the Lady Vols with 18 and 11 points, respectively.

Overall, the game showed that these Lady Vols still have plenty of growing to do, that they have to learn how to finish close games.

But more than anything else, Thursday’s game proved that there is no love lost between these two teams — that there is still a “buzz” in the air, whether Auriemma admits it or not.

Tennessee-UConn games haven’t just created a buzz between the teams, either. They’ve created a buzz for women’s basketball.

I’d call that a pretty big deal, and I think Pat Summitt would, too.