Viewpoint Moore leaves UConn-Tennessee feud in the past

August 18, 2018

UNCASVILLE — She’s the reason Pat Summitt ended the UConn-Tennessee series. The reason Summitt iced the greatest rivalry in women’s team sports.

Who knew Maya Moore would live long enough to see its return?

“I haven’t thought too much on it with everything going on with our season, but I’m sure it’s going to be exciting,” Moore said before the Minnesota Lynx faced the Sun on Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena. “Any time you can create a new chapter (of) a story is always fun to see. There’s, ah, history there.”

Oh, we can quibble about the horrible impact of a UConn fan giving a recruit’s parents a homemade sign during the 2005 SuperShow in Storrs. Or the tragic impact of Caroline Doty sitting in Geno Auriemma’s office and eating Wendy’s with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. Or the sinful allegation of Bird and Taurasi meeting a recruit at the Gampel Pavilion door and escorting her to the coaches’ offices?

The truth is 10 of the 11 ticky-tacky allegations didn’t stick with the NCAA and the only one that did — which resulted in zero penalty — was UConn calling to set up a tour of ESPN. Something Moore could have done herself.

Sure, Summitt wanted Auriemma to stop being a wiseacre. But what she really wanted was Maya Moore to commit to the Lady Vols. It was down to UConn and Tennessee. Moore would be a transcendent star, the way Candace Parker and Chamique Holdsclaw had been for Summitt. She would be a transcendent star, the way Diana Taurasi was and Breanna Stewart would be for Geno Auriemma.

So when Moore chose UConn, Summitt canceled the series without any explanation beyond saying Auriemma knows why. Auriemma would say, “She accused us of cheating at recruiting. She doesn’t have the courage to say it publicly.”

That’s why, in retrospect, the ESPN tour is so delicious. It exposed Tennessee for its pettiness that played so rough. It would be Summit’s brave battle with Alzheimer’s disease and her death in 2016 that gave us all perspective.

Here’s one way of looking at this situation. If Moore, 150-4 at UConn, had decided to go to Tennessee and the Lady Vols won the two NCAA championships UConn did while she was in Storrs, the Huskies wouldn’t have 11 national titles.

They’d have nine. Tennessee would have 10. Obviously, there is all sorts of supposition involved, but this much is guaranteed. Summitt wanted Moore in the worst way. And who wouldn’t?

There were so many incredible moments in the first 22 chapters of Tennessee v. Connecticut and this always was a favorite. After a terrific one-hander over Michelle Snow during the UConn victory at Knoxville, Taurasi went over to the padded basketball support and landed a vicious right punch. Her reasoning? “I saw orange,” Taurasi said, “and I wanted to hit it.”

That was the power of the orange in those days and imagine how powerful and majestic Moore would have looked in it? Summit surely did.

Does she feel cheated not being able to be part of the rivalry?

“I don’t know,” Moore said. “I don’t know what it would have been like when I was there. We have some good memories against some other teams that became something like a rivalry. New history will be created with this one.”

When Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who succeeded Summitt, approached Auriemma about resuming the series in 2013, he wanted her to apologize to UConn fans, to former players, to Moore and her mom. He was angered by what Summitt did and as late as this week said he is still “pissed off” and forever will be about it.

If you look at the six-figure payoffs that led to federal indictments in men’s basketball last year, if you look at the academic scandal at North Carolina, if you look into so many deep dark corners of NCAA history, the second violation of UConn calling ahead to arrange a tour of ESPN for Maya, then a high school junior, and her mom Kathryn in the fall of 2005 barely qualifies as a blemish.

On Senior Night 2011, Kathryn, who had moved to Connecticut from Georgia with Maya told Hearst Connecticut that she and Maya were more than mother and daughter, they were best friends and partners. Best friends don’t like to be called cheaters no more than a coach does.

“People, unfortunately, when it comes to sports take liberties to say things that don’t have any substance to them,” Moore said. “I understand it, but it’s not helpful for the people on the receiving end. I don’t know who said what. It’s not like it’s a person I’m associating with, but there was a point in the recruiting process, after everything was said and done, that wasn’t graceful. But I haven’t thought about it in years.”

Rebecca Lobo was the star of the first national champions. She played in the initial game against Tennessee at Gampel and later that season in the national title game against the Lady Vols in Minnesota. They were semifinal moments for the star of the first of 11 national championships. Lobo became Connecticut’s darling and then a national darling. And no matter how long many of us live, she’ll always be the girl next door.

“I’m thrilled about it, because I’m covering it now,” said Lobo, an ESPN analyst. “Any time there’s excitement in the women’s game for something, you get excited. But it’s weird. We’ve spent so much time being like, ‘All right, we have to move on. OK, now we’ve moved on. UConn-Notre Dame is the big rivalry.’ Of course it’s going to be a great, but I don’t think anyone’s been pining for it. But they’re doing to it for the all right reasons [for Summitt’s Foundation and the Naismith and Women’s Halls of Fame]. It’s meaningful.”

The rivalry’s first star believes it’s time to let it go.

“I think you get to a point in your life where that stuff doesn’t matter anymore,” Lobo said. “One of the most moving things I saw — I was sitting right across the way at the Final Four [2012 in Denver] — Pat came over and coach talked to her. To me, all the ice that surrounded their relationship melted right there. She had been diagnosed and life is bigger than that.

“OK, they didn’t apologize. They made the accusations. Right now, who cares? That’s how I feel.”

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