By Mark Nagi
Sequels rarely live up to the original.
For every Godfather II there are endless Caddyshack 2s.
That’s the way I felt watching last Thursday night when the Lady Vols played UConn for the first time in over 13 years.
In 2007, Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt surprisingly decided not to renew the annual series with UConn. That decision was not met kindly in Storrs, where combatable Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma predictably made his feelings known.
“Pat knows… So, she should just tell you why instead of saying, ‘Geno knows.’ I do know,” Auriemma said the following year. “I already told you. She accused us of cheating at recruiting. She doesn’t have the courage to say it publicly. So yeah, Geno does know. And I’ve said it.”
Summitt never explained the reason behind her decision, but it involved UConn’s recruitment of future star Maya Moore. This was not a decision Summitt took lightly. Remember that for decades, Summitt would bring the Lady Vols to all corners of the country, never ducking an opponent. Tennessee had beaten UConn in their previous three meetings, and the Lady Vols would bring back Candace Parker and most of the 2007 national championship squad for the 2008 matchup. It had to be something serious beyond the typical nefarious nature of recruiting teenagers.
The sport held its collective breath while watching all their 22 games (a series the Huskies led 13-9), and Summitt knew that her decision would send shockwaves throughout women’s basketball. She took the blows repeatedly from Auriemma and always stayed above the fray. But this was her way of saying that enough was enough.
So, when Tennessee and Connecticut decided to set up a two-game series (the rematch to be played next season in Knoxville), I wondered what Summitt, who passed away on June 28, 2016, would think about it. Perhaps she would feel that enough time had passed, and she’d want to lock horns with Geno again. Maybe she’d believe that the fact that a portion of the proceeds would benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame made it a no brainer. But none of us can know for sure what she would have wanted.
I watched the game and the ESPN crew did its best to get viewers invested in the meeting between the third-ranked Huskies and 23rd ranked Lady Vols. They showed highlights from the classic games from 1995-2007. They played the soundbites from Summitt and Auriemma. Summitt, as always, the calm, calculated, classy one and Auriemma the verbose, brash and cocky one. It was meant to be a celebration of the revival of the series.
But it just wasn’t the same.
Tennessee led by three points at the half, but their youth showed up in the second half, in which they could only muster 14 points. The Lady Vols turned the ball over 27 times in the 60-45 loss. UConn remains one of the elite teams in the sport, but for much of the night they looked equally as inept.
I kept thinking that those Tennessee and UConn teams of the past would have destroyed today’s teams. The Lady Vols are still a year or two away from competing for a trip to the Final 4, while UConn doesn’t seem capable of making a serious run at their 12th national title.
Nothing lasts forever and we rarely appreciate the good times at the moment we are experiencing that kind of excellence. Nothing against Kellie Harper (who has done a very good job thus far in her first season as the Lady Vols head coach), but not having Summitt there made this feel like just another game.
It wasn’t a sellout in Hartford and the crowd sounded quiet for much of the evening. Maybe that’ll be different next season for the rematch in 2021.