Geno Auriemma says UConn-Vols rivalry no longer 'what it used to be'

STORRS, Conn. -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma appreciates how big an impact his team's series with Tennessee had on women's basketball, but he cautions against thinking it can be replicated. The No. 3 Huskies and No. 23 Lady Vols face off in Hartford on Thursday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), their first meeting since the 22-game rivalry was ended by former coach Pat Summitt in 2007.

Auriemma commented briefly on the series to the media in the past week, essentially saying that women's basketball had done OK without UConn vs. Tennessee. Wednesday, he made more extended remarks about the rivalry.

"Thirteen years is a long time; a lot's happened," Auriemma said of the break in the series. "A lot of these [players] now were in first grade. I don't think they were paying too much attention to the world of women's college basketball, and by the time they did get to eighth, ninth, 10th grade, it was all gone. It was history. There were other series, other schools, other coaches, other players they became familiar with."

"Everybody would love for it to be what it was, but it's not. It's nostalgic. Times have changed. It's a great game on the schedule. Is it what it used to be? No. Will it ever be? No. As much as their fans or our fans want it to be, it won't be."

Perhaps the most dramatic difference is that Summitt is no longer on Tennessee's sideline; she passed away from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, in 2016. Her assistant Holly Warlick replaced her for seven seasons; now another former Lady Vols guard, Kellie Harper, is in her first season as Tennessee's coach. In games she played against UConn, Harper -- whose last name then was Jolly -- went 4-1.

"I think a lot of people wanted the series to come back," Harper said. "It just brings back memories of good basketball."

But there was also conflict between the programs, including over recruiting, which led to Summitt cancelling the series. Some of those hard feelings resurfaced earlier this season, as Auriemma made critical remarks about Tennessee after former Lady Vol Evina Westbrook was denied a transfer waiver by the NCAA to compete for the Huskies this season.

"We are very well aware of those comments ... we will do everything we can to separate all the things that go into this game and focus on it," Harper said, but added of her players, "If they have anything that fuels their fire, great."

The players on both sides are aware there is a lot of attention on the game, but as Auriemma said, for the most part they know very little about the series. One exception is UConn senior guard Crystal Dangerfield, who is from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and recalls a few details.

But even she said, "It's going to feel like another game against a ranked opponent. I think had [the series] been continued, it would have more weight to it."

Still, Dangerfield did get a taste of the rivalry's passion after she committed to UConn, to the displeasure of some Tennessee fans.

"I remember warming up for a high school game," Dangerfield said, "and I had a couple grown men sitting on the front row giving me crap about it. So, it still lives on."