Déjà vu Thursday: UConn returns to TBA  

Betty BeanFeature

Way back during the before times of women’s college basketball, the winner of the UConn/Tennessee regular season matchup became the odds-on favorite to win it all in March. It was almost automatic.

They’ll tip it up again Thursday (1/26/23) at 8 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena in a game that will be televised on ESPN. Tips on parking and tickets here.

Nowadays the stakes don’t feel as high as they were during the Pat v Geno days, notwithstanding the fact that the injury-depleted Connecticut Huskies (18-2, 11-0 Big East) have managed to hang onto a fifth-place ranking despite losing two super-star players­ – Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd – to injury.

Unranked Tennessee (16-6, 8-0 SEC) has had its own health issues. The biggest blow came when star post player Tamari Key was diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs and sidelined for the season. It’s hard to replace a six-foot-six shot blocking machine.

Meanwhile, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma is an unparalleled recruiter who has a bench full of all-stars to call on. Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper has a solid roster, too, but nobody’s got what Geno’s got – or has lost what he’s lost.

Auriemma has a reputation as a swaggering braggart, but he’s got good reason to call guards Bueckers and Fudd “generational players.” Bueckers is a play-making junior who has won just about every award out there, including the Nancy Lieberman Award, Naismith Player of the Year and the Wooden Award. Both she and Fudd were National Players of the Year coming out of high school, and Fudd was the first player to win a POY award as a 10th grader. They are players that any coach would love to have on their bench – and Geno’s got them both, plus a stable full of players who would probably be stars on any other team.

Harper is certainly not bereft of talent. Senior Jordan Horston and senior transfer Rickea Jackson could play on any coach’s team, including Geno’s. Jackson, who came here from Mississippi State, is averaging 16.3 points per game this season and led the SEC in scoring last year. Horston is averaging 15.2 points per game this season and recently became the fourth Lady Vol to tally 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists for her career. She did not play in Sunday’s nailbiter against Missouri due to an unspecified illness. She has 1,203 points, 621 rebounds and 409 assists.

At KnoxTNToday’s deadline, Horston’s playing status had still not been announced.

(Editor’s Note: Betty Bean subbed in for Maria Cornelius today. Bean has mellowed. To remind you how she used to write women’s basketball we found this column which we published in 2019. The Mean Bean.)

 Note to Phillip Fulmer: Leave Geno in the rear-view mirror next year

I was there on January 4, 2003 when the Connecticut Huskies hosted Tennessee at the Hartford Civic Center. Connecticut was ranked number one, which was nothing unusual, and Tennessee was number two/three, depending on the poll. It snowed like UConn was the Yukon, and was the most miserable evening I have ever spent at a sporting event, before or since.

Not because of the lousy weather nor because Tennessee lost 63-62 in overtime. Not because someone asked me if I wanted possum on my pizza, and not even because Diana Taurasi nailed a three-pointer that she launched from New Jersey (no kidding. I’ve never seen a shot like that, before or since).

None of those annoyances affected me like the chant that went up as Kara Lawson’s last-second shot rattled off the rim:

“Geno is God! Geno is God! GENO IS GOD!”

I have never wanted out of anywhere as much I wanted to vacate that place. I’m from Knoxville. I’ve known sports fans all my life. But never have I been as discomfited as I was that evening. We just don’t holler blasphemous crap like that around here; not for Peyton. Not when Pat’s team went 39-0 in 1998, not when Tee Martin connected with Peerless Price in the Fiesta Bowl.

Things got more acrimonious over the next few years. Recruiting turned into the Hunger Games. Pat closed down practices (except for special occasions). And in 2007, the same year her team won its seventh national championship, and after defeating Connecticut at Hartford in a game when Candace Parker dunked, Pat ended the series, saying that Geno knew the reason.

Sportswriters kvetched and moaned. ESPN complained. Geno bellowed. Pat was tight-lipped and unrelenting. I was happy.

Sad times followed. In 2011, Pat announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. She handed her whistle to Holly Warlick in 2012, and died in 2016. It’s difficult to write those words, even yet.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I wasn’t thrilled when the two athletics departments announced that the game was back on, at least for a two-year home-and-home engagement.

And that was before point guard Evina Westbrook announced that a coaching change needed to happen. And before Holly lost her job. And it was before Westbrook announced that she was transferring to UConn. And it was before the NCAA denied UConn’s request for her immediate eligibility.

And it was before Geno started bellyaching about the terrible, no-good, very bad atmosphere at Tennessee, generating the predictable spitball fights between Knoxville and Storrs over Tennessee’s alleged role in Westbrook’s having to ride the bench for a year. It didn’t take him long to start in on AD Phillip Fulmer, who seemed slightly befuddled by the vitriol.

It all has a much-too-familiar feel. And it doesn’t feel good. Maybe Fulmer has a little more insight into why Pat pulled the plug.

I’ve heard that Warlick was pressured into agreeing to home-and home games with UConn by the powers-that-see-dollar-signs. And now her successor, Kellie Harper, has no choice but to proceed forward.

Here’s hoping that this incarnation of the “series” ends in 2021. Twenty-six years is far too long to put up with Auriemma’s bellyaching and Harper doesn’t deserve to be saddled with that dump truck load of bad history. Evidently, nobody up there in the frozen North has gotten the nerve to tell Geno he’s just not cute anymore. Maybe they still think he’s God.

Betty Bean wrote this column for KnoxTNToday on Monday, November 18, 2019.

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