South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley Apr 7, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley cuts the net after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes in the finals of the Final Four of the womens 2024 NCAA Tournament at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Oftentimes, to fully understand how far we’ve come in any area of society, we have to look to the past. Nowhere is that more true in the sports industry than in women’s sports–and women’s basketball, in particular. Although this past season’s women’s March Madness championship outdrew viewership of the men’s, following a sold-out ESPN ad inventory for the tournament and one of the most popular WNBA seasons on record this past fall, it wasn’t always this way through no fault of the athletes or the sport. Only three years ago, women’s college basketball wasn’t allowed to even use the “March Madness” trademark, let alone dominate the Big Dance. Now, the future of women’s basketball is bright and both veteran and rookie fans have plenty to look forward to.

However, one area that has longtime women’s basketball fans pining for the past is the desire for a heated rivalry. Ask anyone what the best rivalry in college sports is, and many will point to Auburn/Alabama, Oklahoma/Texas, or Duke/North Carolina, to name a few.

However, for women’s basketball fans, none of the knee-jerk rivalries touch the level of the historic UConn/Tennessee rivalry that started in 1995. Spearheaded by two legendary coaches in Tennessee’s Pat Summitt and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, the rivalry not only featured some of the best talents in the game, including Sue Bird, Dianna Taurasi, Maya Moore, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, and Candace Parker, but it essentially catapulted the sport of women’s basketball into the spotlight well before women’s sports were mainstream–which was no small feat in the pre-NIL and social media era.

Jan 23, 2003; Knoxville, TN, USA; Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt talks to player Tasha Butts during a break in the game against South Carolina on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cathy Clarke-USA TODAY NETWORK

To understand the weight of this rivalry, we have to take into account the historic context. Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally-funded educational institutions, turns 52 this June, and the era before its passing says a lot about how far many went to exclude women from sports entirely. When legendary late Tennessee head coach, Pat Summitt, grew up in Henrietta, Tennessee, in the 1960s, no such legislation was in place.

Nevertheless, Summit loved the sport of basketball and played against her brothers in a hayloft on her family’s farm. Although there were few opportunities for her, Summit went on to coach and teach physical education at Tennessee in 1974 at the age of 22, when women were just starting to play full-court basketball. In one of her memoirs, she recounts the experience of having to sell doughnuts to pay for team uniforms and driving to games in a team van. She also won a silver medal as a player in the middle of her coaching career at the 1976 Olympics and coached the 1984 women’s team to gold.  

While Geno Auriemma is a more polarizing figure, there’s no doubt that he’s always had a healthy respect for the sport of women’s basketball–which he’d rather refer to as simply basketball. Auriemma, like Summitt, came from humble beginnings. Originally hailing from Montella, Italy, where running water and heat were considered luxuries, Auriemma’s first love was soccer until basketball caught his attention as a sophomore in high school.

Although his athletic career peaked at the varsity high school level, Auriemma worked hard to prove his worth as a basketball coach, taking on several different coaching positions at the high school and collegiate level before landing at UConn in 1985. The rest is history–since then, UConn has only had one losing season, and is the winningest program in women’s basketball history today with 11 national championships.

The second-winningest program? Summit’s Lady Vols. And although putting “lady” in front of a women’s sports name might be considered condescending and sexist today, for Summitt, it was used as a term that endowed a sense of dignity, empowerment, and respect in an industry that undervalued and discriminated against women so much that they needed federal intervention to belong.

The title was so beloved that thousands of fans and UT alumni signed a petition against the university when it announced that it would be discontinuing use of the “Lady Vols” logo from its uniforms in all teams but women’s basketball in 2014. “Lady” was a term of pride for Summitt’s programs, which is why the university reversed its decision in 2017 under new leadership and women’s teams across sports at Tennessee still use it today. It perfectly encapsulates the culture that Summitt cultivated during her tenure–she refused to believe she and her athletes deserved anything less than the best, because they were among the best–and that’s what made them so dominant.

DALLAS, TX – MARCH 31: Head coach Geno Auriemma of the Connecticut Huskies reacts in the first quarter against the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs during the semifinal round of the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four at American Airlines Center on March 31, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

The personalities of Summitt and Auriemma clashed perfectly. The “candid, honest, and blunt” Auriemma coupled with a fierce and unapologetic Summitt are what rivalry dreams are made of–plus, both were brilliant recruiters who hated losing just as much as the other and had the highest of expectations for their teams.

Auriemma hasn’t changed much over the years–with his disdain for NIL and the transfer portal, many would consider him old school–and his consistency is one of the attributes that draws people to him. His strong personality often pushes people away, but it’s undeniable that his athletes admire, respect, and are grateful for him. Just ask Seattle Storm draftee, Nika Mühl, whose tearful farewell to Auriemma, in which she thanked him for “changing [her] life” and called him “legendary” as a coach and a person went massively viral this past April. Summit passed away in 2016 after a years-long battle with Alzheimers. Some might say the success of her program went with her – since their last championship in 2008, the Lady Vols haven’t reached the Elite Eight since 2016 – but her impact on the sport remains.

Many could argue that Summit’s closest predecessor is another SEC coach building a legacy of her own: South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, whose programs gave us a taste for heated matchups this past season. South Carolina, Iowa, and LSU had several high-stakes rematches throughout the 2024 regular season and postseason–all of which broke viewership records–that hinted at a resurgence of the kind of rivalry women’s hoops fans have been craving for years now.

But with the key personalities of Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark leaving LSU and Iowa respectively for the WNBA, will the heat between their teams continue? We’ll find out next season, but as South Carolina embarks on their repeat tour next year, one team stands out as their next big challenge: the University of Southern California.

While many (like Auriemma) bemoan the transfer portal and its tendency to challenge college coaches to factor in college sport’s free agency equivalent every season, it’s clear that the portal has opened up the floodgates when it comes to superteam potential. Last season, when LSU landed top transfers Hailey Van Lith and Anessah Morrow launched women’s basketball’s first superteam rumors, it failed to live up to its potential.

Van Lith struggled at point guard and Kim Mulkey failed to adapt her defense against Iowa in the Sweet Sixteen–and with both Reese and Van Lith gone next season, it’s unclear where LSU will stand in spite of landing transfer guards Shayeann Day-Wilson, Kailyn Gilbert and Mjracle Sheppard to replace their guards who entered the transfer portal in 2024.

LSU teaches us that, as professional sports have proven time and time again, starpower alone doesn’t win championships–otherwise, the Yankees, Angels, and virtually every UK men’s basketball team in John Caliparri’s coaching tenure there would have secured far more hardware over the past decade or so.

But it’s fun to speculate about superteams, and USC’s potential to live up to this label next season is undeniable. For starters, USC had a banner year in the transfer department, securing former Stanford forward, Kiki Iriafen and former Oregon State guard, Talia von Oelhoffen. Von Oelhoffen will fill in a crucial gap after USC lost guard Mackenzie Forbes, the Trojan’s second-leading scorer, to the WNBA Draft. Iriafen had a breakthrough junior season with the Cardinal, averaging a double double on the season, including a 41-point performance against Iowa State in the Sweet Sixteen, and will be a great post addition to center Rayah Marshall, who has averaged a double-double in her past two seasons with the Trojans. And of course, there’s Juju Watkins, who burst onto the women’s hoops scene as a freshman last season, dominating every scorer in women’s basketball except Caitlin Clark. If rebounding wins championships, USC is a definite contender with Iriafen, Watkins, and Marshall around the rim.

USC JuJu Watkins
Oct 10, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Southern California Trojans guard JuJu Watkins (12) poses during Pac-12 women’s basketball media day at Park MGM Las Vegas Conference Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

UConn is another team not to be trifled with next season as well. Although the Huskies lost Nika Mühl and Aaliyah Edwards to the WNBA Draft, they have plenty of formidable players returning and joining via the transfer portal. Paige Bueckers will be a key component to UConn’s squad as their leading scorer last season, averaging 21.9 points per game. Additionally, UConn secured Ivy League Player of the Year, Kaitlyn Chen, who is transferring from Princeton, where she averaged 15.9 points and 3.5 rebounds last season. Chen rounds out a guard-heavy UConn lineup, including Bueckers, sophomore Ashlynn Shade, who averaged 11 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in her freshman season, and Azzi Fudd if she comes back healthy next year, which could provide the perfect foil for what will be an impressive post lineup for USC. 

And of course, everybody wants to beat the defending national champion, South Carolina, a squad that has only lost three games in the past three seasons under Dawn Staley. The big question is: can anybody pull it off? If someone does, we could be looking at the next great rivalry in women’s college basketball.

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.