Role players remember their part in rivalry

There were so many great players in those first couple of meetings between Connecticut and Tennessee.

You had Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti, Kara Wolters and Nykesha Sales for the Huskies, and Michelle Marciniak and Nikki McCray for the Lady Vols.

And there are others, too, who no longer play professionally -- and some who aren't even associated with the game anymore.

But they don't forget the rivalry.

Carla Berube, Pam Mitchell (formerly Pam Webber) and Pashen Thompson might not remember the specifics of who scored when, from where and how, but they certainly recall the emotions of the day and the game.

On Jan. 16, 1995, Connecticut and Tennessee met for the first time in a regular-season game at Gampel Pavilion, on ESPN. They met again later that season for the national championship. The next season, they met twice more -- once during the regular season and again at the Final Four.

Though the Lady Vols had played in many big contests, this was a new level of ferocity that they hadn't seen on the basketball court. And those matchups began what is now the best rivalry in women's college sports, one that resumes Thursday night.

"It was intense,'' said Thompson, then one of Tennessee's key post players who had the responsibility of shadowing the 6-foot-7 Wolters. "The intensity is the biggest thing I remember. Coach would tell us how this was the biggest game ever, and how everybody in the country would be watching. Some people lost their teeth, some lost skin. I lost a little blood.''

Connecticut won three of the first four meetings, relishing the role of the underdog.

"It was time for us to step into the spotlight,'' Berube said. "We proved a lot of people wrong.''

Mitchell, a 5-6 guard, captained UConn's unbeaten 1995 squad that beat Tennessee for the national title and put Connecticut women's basketball on the same level of respect in the state as the men's team. She played a key role in the first half of the 70-64 victory over Tennessee. Even though she didn't score a point, she kept the team's play steady when early foul trouble put some of the Huskies top players on the bench.

"I was a role player,'' Mitchell said. "I led through my demeanor. Coach instilled in us a quiet confidence. There was an intimidation factor. We had to ask them not to stretch on our side of the court. But we weren't scared.''

Mitchell had the chance to go to New York with Rebecca Lobo to make an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" the day after the championship game, but declined.

"I had a really big exam the next day,'' Mitchell said. "I was just trying to be a student-athlete.''

Berube and her former coach have something in common this week. Both get to face the No. 1 team in the country. In Berube's case, her 13-4 Tufts (Mass.) University squad hosts unbeaten Bowdoin College, the top-ranked team in Division III. Tufts competes in the New England Small Colleges Athletic Conference, the small-college equivalent of the Ivy League. Berube took the job there two years ago after serving as an assistant coach at Providence.

One women's basketball columnist referred to Berube as "Connecticut's most talented forgotten player.'' Berube was a co-captain and forward on the 1996 team, hitting a game-tying basket late in overtime of the championship, though Tennessee went on to win 88-83. She finished her career with 1,379 points and played professionally for the New England Blizzard of the now-defunct ABL.

Followers of her current team have noticed that Berube emulates her former collegiate coach.

"I pace a lot, and I talk under my breath,'' Berube said with a laugh, acknowledging the comparison to UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "It's funny. We won a game the night Connecticut lost to Notre Dame. People came up to me after the game asking, 'What's wrong with your team?' I said, 'What do you mean? My team is Tufts.'

"I still follow Connecticut closely. I took my team to one of their practices in October. I think we practice as hard as they do. It's very intense. That's how I was brought up.''

Thompson, who also played in the ABL, is a probation and parole officer for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, living in Philadelphia, Miss.

"The one thing that's the same is the intensity,'' Thompson said. "Every day is intense. I like this job because there's never a dull moment. I couldn't sit at a desk all day long.

She still watches games regularly and vividly recalls one of her most memorable moments: scoring the opening basket in the 1996 national semifinal game. And Thompson, who sometimes wishes she had gone into coaching, still has a hard time sitting still when Tennessee is playing.

"I can't understand how coaches sit on the sidelines and watch,'' Thompson said. "If I'm watching and they make a mistake, I flip the channel. I coach the team in every room in the house. I'll go in the kitchen and yell, 'Get a rebound!' or 'Box out!' ''

Mitchell, a physical therapist on maternity leave based in State College, Pa., and her husband, Scott, have decided there's one color that their two-month old son, Jaden, won't wear.

"My son won't have any orange clothes,'' Mitchell said with a laugh. "I still don't like that color.''

The three were watching the Super Bowl the other day. Scott turned to Pam and said, "It must feel so awesome to get to play in this game.''

"I know how awesome it feels,'' Mitchell thought to herself. "It's something neat and very special. Most people can only dream about it.''

Mark Simon is a researcher for ESPN's college basketball telecasts. He can be contacted at Mark.A.Simon@espn.com.