The No. 25 Tennessee Lady Vols (9-3, 3-1 SEC) fell to the No. 3 UConn Huskies (9-0) 67-61 in a close match between old foes.
This is the second matchup between the teams since 2007 when the annual series ended. UConn owns the all-time series 15-9, but Tennessee was on a three-game win streak when the series was brought to a halt. The two teams also met last at UConn, where the Lady Vols fell by 15, in a revival game for the rivalry.
This game also marked the official We Back Pat game of the season for Tennessee. We Back Pat is a foundation started by legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and her son Tyler Summitt after Pat’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2011. High schools and colleges around the country are hosting “We Back Pat” games this week including Tennessee’s past two games against Georgia and Alabama.
As a part of We Back Pat week, the Lady Vols also continued wearing special uniforms that paid tribute to the late coach Pat Summitt by replacing the players’ last names on the back of the jersey with “Summitt” along with purple accents on the uniform.
Tennessee and UConn began the game battling, resulting in a 17-16 lead for the Lady Vols at the end of the first quarter. Neither team was able to gain a lead of more than three points in the period as they traded buckets. Leading the way for Tennessee was Rae Burrell with eight points and Tamari Key with six. Burrell and Key would continue their impressive play throughout the game. Burrell finished with 18 points including three made three-point shots and eight rebounds, while Key finished with 10 points and nine rebounds.
The second quarter was just as much of a scrap as the first, ending in a 35-34 advantage for Tennessee heading into the half. The leaders of the half for the Huskies were Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook who had nine and eight points, respectively. Both players would also go on to finish the game as UConn’s leading scorers with 20 and 15 points, respectively.
Westbrook is a former Lady Vol who transferred to UConn in the summer of 2019 after spending two seasons at Tennessee. Last year she was held out of the matchup between her new and former schools because of NCAA transfer rules forcing her to sit out the entire season. This transfer caused a stir in the women’s basketball community, which lead to UConn head coach Geno Auriemma making claims of an unhealthy situation in Knoxville, although he refused to provide any details or examples.
“She made some really clutch shots in really big moments in the game, and I thought there was another one that was in,” said Auriemma on Westbrook’s return to Knoxville. “It couldn’t have been easy coming back here, as it is never easy when someone goes back to where they were playing before, but I couldn’t have asked her to play any better, for sure.”
To open the second half, the two teams traded shots and leads. However, halfway through the third quarter, the Lady Vols began to create a little bit of separation. They would finish the quarter with 49-45 lead.
“I thought we guarded them well for the majority of the game. I thought our game plan was really solid. They’re going to make plays. You’re not going to shut them down. They’re too good on offense, but I thought we made them uncomfortable on the offensive end,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper.
Tennessee had the lead and momentum heading into the final quarter, but UConn opened the frame on a 13-3 run. Lady Vols’ freshman Marta Suarez responded with a three-pointer, but the Huskies came right back with an Olivia Nelson-Ododa layup.
While down eight with under three minutes to play, the Lady Vols went on a 6-0 run. Exceptional team defense and baskets from Burrell, Rennia Davis and Key left Tennessee down just two points with 55 seconds left in the game.
However, the Huskies would respond with a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock from highly touted freshman Paige Bueckers. Buceckers was considered the best recruit in the 2020 class by ESPN, but she struggled against the Lady Vols shooting just 3-for-14 from the field for only nine points. No shot was bigger than her three, though, as it iced the 67-61 game for UConn.
“Obviously, we just have to watch the film, get better, and then on to the next,” said Davis after the loss. “We have Kentucky coming up, and that is an SEC game. We want to bounce back and be able to win that game.”
Tennessee will be in action next on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m when they take on the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats at home. The event airs on ESPN2. TNJN will also have coverage after the game.
Edited by Christian Knox and Gracie-Lee Strange
Featured image courtesy of Lady Vol Basketball Twitter (@LadyVol_Hoops)