STORRS, Conn. -- Normally, it takes maybe decades of hard-fought competition, played out on grand stages, for a rivalry to build to the level that the Connecticut-Tennessee women's basketball series has reached in just four years.
And though the Lady Vols-Huskies matchup doesn't have the long-lasting cachet of, say, Duke-North Carolina on the men's college front or the Lakers-Celtics dramas of the NBA of old, these two teams have pushed each other to impressive heights in only eight meetings.
Yesterday's 92-81 Tennessee win before a raucous throng of 10,027 at Gampel Pavilion goes right up on the mantel with some of the best games, not only in this series, but also in women's basketball history.
"They [games in the series] all seem to be very close to me. Any time you get these two teams together, you're going to get 40 minutes of intense basketball, and [yesterday] was not an exception," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
Part theater, part rugby scrum, part World Wrestling Federation match, with noted boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer flown in for good measure, the two teams with the most wins in women's basketball over the past five seasons staged a taut thriller captured by Tennessee at the end thanks to its big-game experience.
With their two best players, senior Chamique Holdsclaw and sophomore Tamika Catchings, saddled with four fouls each, the three-time defending champion and No. 2 Lady Vols (13-1) played like champions over the final four minutes, breaking open a 76-76 tie with a 16-5 closing run.
Holdsclaw, the two-time national Player of the Year, did the bulk of her damage early, with 10 of her 25 points in the first four minutes to rock the No. 1 Huskies back on their heels.
Catchings hit a three-pointer from the right wing with 2: 39 remaining to give Tennessee a five-point lead, effectively shutting the door on Connecticut.
"I told her [Catchings] in the huddle that big-time players make big-time plays and she stepped up when we needed it," said Holds- claw.
Between the two All-Americans was the play of sophomore guard Semeka Randall, who tied a career high with 25 points to go along with seven rebounds.
In the process, Randall became Huskies Public Enemy No. 1 in the first half, when she and Connecticut forward Svetlana Abrosimova fell to the floor together, each clutching the ball. Randall emerged with it and drew the enmity of the fans, who booed her every time she touched the ball the rest of the game.
"I didn't want to give in, and she didn't want to give in. We rolled around for a while, and I guess it was like a WWF match," Randall said with a grin.
Except this game was for keeps. The loss ended the Huskies' 54-game home winning streak -- which had been the longest active streak in all of college basketball -- and gave Tennessee a measure of revenge. Connecticut had broken the Lady Vols' 69-game home streak two years ago.
The win will almost certainly vault Tennessee back to No. 1, where it started the season, when the new Associated Press poll is released today. And though Summitt attempted to downplay the significance of a January meeting, she said the Lady Vols and Huskies (13-1) do seem to be near the head of the women's basketball class.
"I think if we take care of business and they take care of business, Tennessee and Connecticut could play again in March," said Summitt, whose team plays host to unbeaten No. 4 Georgia Thursday. "What you can't say is there's only two teams, us and them. I made a list of teams that could win the national championship, and I counted eight teams."
For the Huskies, who boast the nation's most talented collection of freshmen, to get to a late-March rematch, they'll have to avoid the kinds of mistakes that hampered them down the stretch, when they went scoreless over a three-minute span.
"A couple of their guys made some really, really big plays like you would expect them to, and a couple of our guys made some plays that I hoped that they wouldn't make," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "The bottom line is we didn't win a game that was winnable. What you do is hope and pray that we get a chance to play a game like this in March. Hopefully, somebody will beat them, and we won't have to."
Pub Date: 1/11/99