UConn rises to challenge, beats rival Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s the most storied rivalry in women’s basketball history.
On Thursday, that was as evident as ever in No. 5 UConn women’s basketball’s 84-67 win over unranked Tennessee. The win was UConn’s fourth-straight over its longtime rival in the teams’ most recent series and 17th overall over the Lady Vols.
It was the Huskies’ toughest environment so far this season as a sea of orange and Summitt blue filled Thompson-Boling Arena in the series’ first game in front of fans in Knoxville since 2006. There was a limited number of fans allowed at the teams’ meeting in 2021 in Tennessee because of the pandemic.
“It was another challenge for them,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of his players. “And they’ve kind of risen to the occasion on just about every challenge this year.”
The heated emotions between the two programs (which have met four times in the national championships game) began the minute UConn (19-2, 11-0 Big East) walked out for its final warmups. A loud cheer began for the Huskies only to be interrupted by an even louder “boo” from the Rocky Top crowd. Auriemma was met with an immediate roar of boos when he first stepped on the court.
But that wasn’t where the tension ended.
The crowd got on its feet for every Tennessee bucket and booed at every call that went UConn’s way. Questionable officiating didn’t help the situation as fouls were called every which way.
Despite the noise and the programs’ long history, it was rivalry newcomer Lou Lopez Sénéchal that remained calm and led the Huskies to victory. The graduate transfer from Fairfield had only ever heard about the UConn-Tenneseee before living it on Thursday.
In front of 13,804 people (Tennessee’s largest home crowd since 2015), Lopez Sénéchal had her best game thus far as a Husky, scoring a season-high 26 points on 11 of 16 shooting.
“If you’ve never been here maybe just, you know, ignorance is bliss,” Auriemma said. “You come in and play a game and say, ‘Hey, what’s the difference between here and Notre Dame?’ ... So, I think if this is your first time here, maybe it’s like real easy. It’s just another gym. It’s just another game. I make shots.
“Sometimes it’s your second or third time that you come down and you know what’s coming, that maybe it affects you a little bit differently but Lou is Lou. She’s not gonna get any AllAmerican votes but I don’t know anybody that’s been more important to any team in America than she’s been to us.”
The difference between the first two quarters was almost stunning.
The Lady Vols (16-7, 8-0 SEC) had cut a once 19-point deficit to four at halftime.
After UConn scored 33 points in the first quarter (a seasonhigh in a single quarter and the most points Tennessee has allowed in a quarter this season), the Huskies were held to just seven points in the second quarter.
“Their competitive instincts and their pride and who they are and their program and what it means, I think that takes over. You don’t want to get embarrassed, you know? And I think when we went in at halftime, I think we were in the same place,” Auriemma said. “We were really disappointed in ourselves. And we knew that we had to change our approach.”
Lopez Sénéchal sat on the bench for the final three minutes of the first half with three fouls as Dorka Juhász was playing with two. UConn had zero turnovers in the first 10 minutes and seven in the next, contributing to 11 of Tennessee’s 19 points in the second quarter.
Six of Tennessee’s points in the second quarter came from the foul line. After only being called for one foul in the first quarter, the Huskies were called for eight in the second.
Auriemma expressed frustration at the officiating during an on-court halftime interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
“This is what you get when you come down here,” he said. “The game was called one way then it changed. Nothing else changed. We didn’t change.”
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Aubrey Griffin stood under the basket and set her feet to use her body to block Jillian Hollingshed’s drive. Griffin fell to the ground when she collided with Hollingshed and a call was originally called on the Tennessee sophomore for an offensive foul.
However, the officials reviewed the play and reversed the call, giving Griffin her second foul of the game.
Moments later, UConn grabbed a defensive rebound only to have Tennessee tip it away on the dribble. Auriemma turnaround and slammed his hand against the scorers’ table in frustration.
The Huskies had a burst of energy with a 7-0 run to combat the Lady Vols getting as close as two.
UConn was able to build back a double-digit lead at 4:40 in the third with a 3-pointer from Lopez Sénéchal (10 points in the third) as Tennessee missed four straight buckets.
The Huskies relied on their defense to lead 68-55 heading into the final quarter.
“I just try not to like overthink, that’s my main concern and you know, and just play on the pressure,” Lopez Sénéchal told Rowe on the court after the game. “I’ve always loved moments like that even in Fairfield whenever we had big games, you know, I just enjoy having a big crowd. It’s always exciting and I just try not to put too much pressure on myself.”
She said moments later appearing to get emotional: “It’s crazy . ... I’m just super blessed to be here. Five years ago I would never think, you know, I could like be on national TV and play with UConn and it’s just an honor.”
Auriemma was asked by Rowe about her journey from Fairfield to UConn. He gave a national TV shout-out to former Fairfield coach Joe Frager, whom he met in the 1990s while recruiting Maria Conlon out of Seymour High. Frager, who retired from Farifield after last season, coached Conlon at Seymour.
“She didn’t come from out of the wilderness, you know?” Auriemma said. “Joe Frager is a hell of a coach out there, he just retired. She knows how to play basketball and she knows how to score.”
The Lady Vols opened the fourth with a steal-and-score from Jordan Horston (gamehigh 27 points). Two minutes later, Nika Mühl responded with a steal-and-score of her own.
But less than 30 seconds later, Griffin (13 points, six rebounds) was called for her fourth foul. Tennessee wasn’t backing down and had kept itself in the game thanks to 23 offensive rebounds (UConn finished with nine).
Playing on three fouls for the whole second half, Lopez Sénéchal kept UConn afloat and sparked a 7-0 run halfway through the fourth.
“She’s gonna make a great pro for somebody,” Auriemma said of the fifth-year senior.
A 3-pointer from Juhász (13 points, six rebounds) at 3:31 put the Huskies up by 17 to seal the win.
Junior power forward Aaliyah Edwards followed Lopez Sénéchal with 25 points and a teamhigh seven rebounds. Mühl finished with 14 assists for her ninth game this season with 10 or more.
The Huskies return to Connecticut to host No. 21 Villanova and reigning Big East Player of the Year, Maddy Siegrist on Sunday at 2 p.m. at XL Center (CBS).
“It’s just super exciting to be able to play in bigger and bigger challenges,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “That’s obviously what I wanted (when deciding to transfer to UConn).”