What UConn women's basketball great Rebecca Lobo said about Huskies, rivalry with Tennessee

Photo of Christine Butterfield

The best rivalry in all of women's college hoops will be renewed as No. 5 UConn travels to Knoxville to play against Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday, Jan. 26. 

ESPN's 'College Gameday' will showcase the primetime matchup with coverage starting at 7 p.m. EST. The game will be hosted by Elle Duncan, former Lady Vol basketball player Andraya Carter, Carolyn Peck, Holly Rowe and UConn legend Rebecca Lobo will call the game.

"I'm just glad they're back playing it. You know we had a long number of years where it wasn't being played. And it was still the best rivalry in women's college basketball when it ended," Lobo said.

Lobo has nearly as much history with this rivalry as Geno Auriemma, as she led the Huskies to their first win over Tennessee in 1995 and their first NCAA title in 1995. 

"It feels like forever ago that I was part of it, but whether it was being part of it for that one year or covering it for a lot of years. Certainly it was the best matchup but there was always something at stake," Lobo said.

At the time the rivalry began, UConn was not yet a powerhouse. The Huskies were on their way to their first national title in 1995, but they were the underdog when the programs first met.

“Certainly when I was at UConn, which is when this rivalry started, Tennessee was the top of the mountain," Lobo said. "That's what every college  team and program was striving for was to get to the level that Tennessee had been at for a number of years. And so certainly you're always reaching for the the person in the team that's at the top of it. It was to the contrast of the styles and personalities of the coaches and the different ways that they interacted as well."

The styles between Auriemma’s Huskies and Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols were different. Auriemma has said that he would not know if both programs would reach the amount of success they did without each other constantly pushing one another for greatness.

Summitt passed away in 2016, but her lasting impact on women’s basketball is still be felt and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper — who played for Summitt — is focused on keeping her spirit alive.

“It was interesting listening to Coach Harper's presser the other day, because she was saying, you know, the farther the players are removed from Coach Summitt being on the sideline, the more they need to be reminded of who she was and the impact she made,” Lobo said. 

“I think this game is great for that. And it's great to kind of remember the history of what this rivalry represented.”

UConn has been plagued with injuries this season, as the team's marquee players (Azzi Fudd and Paige Buecker) will be on the bench. Bueckers was ruled out before the season due to an ACL tear while Fudd injured her right knee on Jan. 15 and has no timeline to return. 

Other players have been in and out of the lineup, Auriemma missed time with an illness, and UConn was forced to postpone a game because the team did not have enough healthy players. UConn now has eight available players.

When asked about the Huskies' long injury report heading into this game Lobo joked — or half joked — that, "first, let's see who is playing the game."

"One of the things that I've marveled at in their last two games, they haven't made their first substitution till around the two minute mark of the second quarter. That's their first substitution so their starters are playing the first 18 minutes," she said. "...So it's pretty remarkable what they're doing right now. And it's funny too, I was thinking about UConn, it's been a tough year because of the injuries and illness, whatever else and you look like, oh, and they've only lost twice on the road to a really good Notre Dame team and to what ended up being a really good Maryland team."

Despite their injury woes, this Husky squad has remained resilient and fought to achieve an 11-game winning streak heading into Knoxville.

"They just keep moving on, somebody steps up their game. This year it's been Aaliyah Edwards in a big way, Dorka (Juhasz) as well," Lobo said.

Edwards has been a major factor, averaging 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds. The numbers are impressive, but Lobo said that Edwards’ key contributions come from other areas of the floor.

“She's got to be one of the most improved players in the country from a year ago to this year. She's been incredible for them, especially considering what they've lost and how she's been able to step up,” Lobo said.

“...Defensively, she can step out guard (and) on the perimeter as well as inside. She's been consistently great every game and you need to have that player that you feel when you're on a team. I know this is a big game, feeling a little bit nervous or whatever. I know I can count on her. She is going to do her job today. And Aaliyah has been that player for UConn all season long and certainly is having an All-American type year.”

Can UConn make a run in March, even with its depleted roster?

“Last year when it looked like 'Alright, this is going to be the year they break the streak and don't make it to the Final Four' ... they did. It wouldn't shock me if they made this year their 15th Straight,” Lobo said.