Auriemma, Summitt bring out the best in each other

The Tennessee-Connecticut matchup is women's hoops version of the Hatfields and McCoys. The most inflamed followers on both sides would battle over a cupcake crumb. They fight to be fighting. Willing to bury the hatchet ... only in each other.

Then there's the slightly-less-zealous-but-still-firmly-committed folks, who are almost always perfectly rational ... until mention of that other team. At which point, they suddenly display character traits that range from "brutally sarcastic with deadly intent'' to "twitchy as the Lifetime movie villain portrayed by an aging former network series star.''

There are also people who are "blue'' or "orange'' but have the ability to appreciate the other team's play. Although even they would admit when their team loses to that other team, the residual feeling is somewhat like trying to dig out a splinter from your finger for about a month.

Then, there is everyone else. The bystanders. Either they take a side or they don't. Except ... many of the UConn and Tennessee people have a hard time believing that. Scratch that; they flat-out don't believe it.

To them, this is choosing between two polarities. Good vs. evil. Are you with us or against us? Staying in the middle? Hah! Better duck a lot or you're gonna get hit by the crossfire. And anyway, you're lying. You really like them.

In fact, though, the "I hate you both equally/tolerate you both equally/like you both equally'' group does exist in large numbers. This rivalry is now in its 10th year and 18th game, to be played at 7 p.m. ET Thursday in Knoxville on ESPN2. The two teams have taken turns being the so-called "favorite'' or "heavy'' both in terms of their own matchup and their overall role in the women's game in any given season.

How much do the players get into all of this? Certainly, they feel it greatly while taking part in it ... but likely even more so when it's over for them and they, too, become fans. They can look back with pride at how the rivalry elevated their play, and how their games contributed to the overall tapestry of the sport.

How much do the coaches get into it? Enormously, although neither ever really comes right out and says it like that. They both play the standard coaches' deck -- "We're both great programs ... There's always something important on the line ... But in the regular season, it's still just one game. ... People want to make more of it than we do, really. ... Still, it's great for women's basketball.''

Then UConn's Geno Auriemma also plays his jokers' deck, which he says adds "spice'' to everything. The various jabs at the "Evil Empire'' or the 37th playing of "Rocky Top'' or people wearing orange clothes ... it's all become a standard part of the gig now.

On his teleconference Monday, Auriemma was asked about the "Sports Illustrated'' magazine state-by-state feature that each week includes a poll listing the "enemy of the state.'' Pat Summitt won in Connecticut, which was actually fabulous to see.

"People are funny around here,'' Auriemma said. "We lost two games ... if they took the poll again today, she'd be second and I'd be first.

"People are two-faced, too. When she came up here to plug her book, they were waiting in line to get her autograph. It was like, 'Pat we love you.' I wouldn't put too much stock in that 'enemy-of-the-state' stuff.''

It should go without saying that Auriemma is in high-comedy gear with such statements ... and yet, there's an element of "many a truth is said in jest'' here, too.

Of course it gets under his skin that Summitt is so "venerated'' nationally. But he surely understands it, too, because for all Auriemma's wise-cracking bluster, he is an excellent judge of talent/value in any capacity.

I've always thought his core and Summitt's are very much alike, even though their personalities are different, largely due to environment. Auriemma is the immigrant kid from Philly who puffs up with bravado and sarcasm when challenged -- but actually responds to it with hard work and dedication.

That's exactly how Summitt responds, too, except you won't see her get her hackles up the same way Auriemma will. She's the Tennessee farm girl who never believed in the limitations others set for females. If you can't "reason'' your detractors out of their biases, you just have to figuratively hit them over the head again and again with your accomplishments. Summitt has been doing that her whole life.

And Summitt always looks for a payback when she's suffered a tough loss. Revenge for her has been a dish best served cold.

Tennessee lost to Virginia in the 1990 East Regional ... and beat the Cavs in the 1991 Final Four. Tennessee lost to Duke in the 1999 East Regional ... and beat the Blue Devils in the 2003 Final Four. Not to mentioned spoiled their recent "full-house'' party in Durham, N.C.

Tennessee has lost to UConn the last three times the teams have met in the Final Four: the 2000 and 2003 title games and the 2002 semifinals. Yes, Tennessee has lots of "rivals.'' But UConn has been the one that has most vexed Tennessee -- and done it while the sport has gained a bigger spotlight. UConn has an 11-6 series edge.

So what did Summitt do? Encouraged her longtime sidekick Mickie DeMoss to take over her own program at Kentucky ... and then without DeMoss, Summitt got last fall's blockbuster recruiting class. We'll see how it pans out, but it's a clear indication of how much Summitt still puts into the battle to be at the top.

Whether Auriemma and Summitt "needed'' each other to bring out the other's best is debatable ... but there's no doubt that's exactly what has happened. And the same for both programs. This year in college women's hoops is hardly a two-horse race -- for example, a lot more than the eyes of Texas are on Austin -- but these are two Secretariat-level horses.

And we can all appreciate a good race, which is what UConn and Tennessee always have.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.