One game grew into a phenomenon

Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the first UConn-Tennessee women's basketball game, a 77-66 Huskies victory that started the series that became its own mega-chapter in the sport's lore.

That Jan. 16, 1995, contest was played on a Monday afternoon on Martin Luther King Day at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut. The Associated Press poll voting was delayed a day to account for the result, which then flipped the teams' rankings as UConn took over No. 1 and Tennessee went to No. 2.

The series lasted for 22 games, including four matchups for the NCAA title (all won by UConn) and two others in the national semifinals (split by the teams). Former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt called a halt to the regular-season series after the 2007 season, and the programs have yet to meet again in the NCAA tournament.

Loyalists on both sides -- and the rest of us who just watched and chronicled the spectacle -- haven't completely stopped talking about UConn-Tennessee ever since.

Now, though, rather than exhaustively exploring the entire series -- which stands at UConn 13, Tennessee 9 -- or the tangled, endlessly debated intrigue of why it ended, let's look instead at what isn't in dispute: How important to women's basketball it was that the rivalry started.

OK, well, wait ... there's probably going to be some disagreement about that, too. In trying to be historically accurate, let's establish some things about that first UConn-Tennessee game that are not true.

• It was not the launch of the first great women's basketball rivalry. There were several before that, including some involving Tennessee. Some of the rivalries were of a purely geographic nature, similar to rivalries of men's collegiate teams. But others were more specific to women's basketball, as they were between schools that had put resources into that sport at a time when that was not common.

I hesitate to list all the notable rivalries before UConn-Tennessee because no matter how many I name, someone will feel left out. But one that certainly merits special mention is Tennessee-Louisiana Tech. Before the Lady Vols had ever faced UConn, they'd met Louisiana Tech 25 times, including five matchups in the Final Four, spanning both the AIAW and NCAA eras. Twice it had been for the national championship, in 1981 and '87, and the programs would have one more such meeting in 1998.

• The first UConn-Tennessee showdown also was not the birth of "Huskymania" in the state of Connecticut. That train steadily had been picking up steam in the decade since coach Geno Auriemma took over the program in 1985. That included the boosts from the Huskies' 1991 Women's Final Four appearance and from the first three seasons of Rebecca Lobo's storied career.

However, that first UConn-Tennessee game 20 years ago was a touchstone in not just women's basketball, but women's collegiate sports. Because it showed that with the combination of high-caliber play, big personalities and national television attention, a women's college rivalry really could become a sports phenomenon.

"Women's basketball had great rivalries before, but the masses did not know about them," said broadcaster Mimi Griffin, who called that first UConn-Tennessee contest for ESPN, along with Robin Roberts.

"The thing that was so important about this one particular game is it established a rivalry with sustainability at the highest level, and established it in the backyard of ESPN and the New York-based media."

She is absolutely right about that, but it's where we get into a sticky area. Yes, the media attention that the Huskies have gotten over the past two decades continues to be a bone of contention in the women's basketball world, especially for those who suffer (periodically or constantly) from UConn fatigue.

"We were hurried off the air … But nobody left Gampel, because everybody understood the magnitude of what happened. It's a shame we didn't have that: 8,000 people just hanging out because nobody wanted to go home." Mimi Griffin, who called the inaugural UConn-Tennessee game for ESPN

It's fair to say the two things -- the Huskies' undeniable sustained success and the media's interest in the program -- fed each other.

But the UConn-Tennessee rivalry was two-sided. It was a near-perfect setup between North and South, between a program still considered nouveau riche and a longer-established one that already had three NCAA titles, between a coach known for his Philly-style wisecracks and a coach revered for her trailblazing.

"All the stars aligned," Griffin said, "and thank goodness that they did."

Griffin and Roberts were well-versed in the history of both programs and women's basketball in general. In that broadcast, they were cognizant of putting the game in proper historical context while also giving it the gravitas that it warranted.

"In talking to Pat and Geno beforehand, we knew the whole thing was setting up to be something really incredible," Griffin said. "That arena was just awesome ... Gampel is so great with how intimate it is. The fans are so close to the floor."

Summitt always scheduled very tough, an endeavor helped by the fact that the SEC was typically deep and challenging. The SEC schedule back then was only 11 games, though, leaving lots of room for nonconference tests. And Summitt wanted her team tested.

Tennessee had played three games in the six days before meeting UConn, including on the road against Louisiana Tech and Auburn. The Lady Vols were 16-0 coming into Jan. 16.

The Huskies also played three times the week before the big game, but with less travel. They'd defeated St. John's in New York, and then Providence and Seton Hall at home. The Huskies were 12-0.

The game was sold out in advance, which back them was notable. The 8,241 fans saw UConn start a little slow, but then really turn it on and take a 41-33 lead at halftime.

During the second half, Tennessee kept trying to chip away, but was never able to get closer than four points. All five Lady Vols starters scored in double figures, led by post players Dana Johnson and Tiffani Johnson with 14 points each. Guard Michelle Marciniak had 12 points and four assists.

For UConn, center Kara Wolters had a team-high 18 points, while guard Jennifer Rizzotti scored 17. Lobo was still the star attraction, with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots. Freshman Nykesha Sales came off the bench for 12 points. The Huskies held Tennessee to 36.3 percent shooting from the field.

Right after the game ended, ESPN cut to regularly scheduled programming. The cameras didn't linger for interviews or the postgame scene in a deliriously happy arena. That is the mental picture that sticks with Griffin.

"We were hurried off the air; they went to 'The Sports Reporters,'" Griffin recalled, chuckling. "But nobody left Gampel, because everybody understood the magnitude of what happened. It's a shame we didn't have that: 8,000 people just hanging out because nobody wanted to go home."

Well ... nobody except the Lady Vols, who were able to take out some frustration five days later on Mississippi State in Knoxville, Tennessee, with an 81-58 victory.

Tennessee would lose once more before the NCAA tournament, falling to Vanderbilt in the championship game of the SEC tournament.

UConn would face two more "tests" before the Final Four: a 97-87 victory over Kansas in Kansas City, Missouri, in late January, and the game that was actually their closest call but is often overlooked in that historic perfect season. That was a down-to-the wire 67-63 victory over Virginia in the NCAA regional final in Storrs.

That was the only game all that season in which UConn trailed at halftime (44-37), and a critical five-second violation by the Cavaliers with 19 seconds left helped seal the Huskies' trip to the Final Four.

Then it was on to Minneapolis, where UConn and Tennessee would meet for a second time in the 1994-95 season, this time for the national championship. That 70-64 victory on April 2 gave the Huskies their first NCAA title and a 35-0 record.

And it started the two-decade stretch, bringing us through last season, in which either UConn or Tennessee won 14 of the 20 NCAA titles in women's basketball.

Will we see UConn and Tennessee play each other again? As for the resumption of the regular-season series, that is for the programs to decide (and we won't even get into how complicated that is). As for an NCAA tournament meeting, that's for the twists and turns of March/April Madness to decide.

But, hey, we'll always have Jan. 16, 1995, on which to reflect. The day everybody thought would bring a great women's basketball game also became a mile marker in collegiate sports history.