Virginia plays at Tennessee tonight (Nov. 17), and the game will be televised on Fox Sports South at 7 Eastern time. It will be the programs’ first meeting since 2003, and just the second in the last decade. Tennessee has a 11-1 series lead, although that one Virginia victory still sticks with coach Pat Summitt. I’ll get to that in just a bit.
There was a time when the Vols and Cavs were both titans taking swings at each other. But Tennessee’s profile just kept getting bigger, while Virginia’s shrank. The latter has a lot to do with the ascendency of Duke in the ACC … the Blue Devils under Gail Goestenkors took over as primary “egghead” program in the league, and U.Va. hasn’t been the same since.
If you want to point to one game where the rise of one program intersected with the decline of the other, go to the 1995 ACC tournament semifinals. Virginia let a 20-point halftime lead slip away and lost to Duke in overtime.
Still, the Cavs would go on to make the NCAA Elite Eight that season (losing to UConn) and the next (losing to Tennessee). But Virginia hasn’t made it back to that level since 1996 … while Duke has gone to the Final Four four times in that span.
Speaking of 1996, that was the last time the Cavs-Vols result was close. They met on U.Va.’s former home court in University Hall in the East Regional final. That was Chamique Holdsclaw’s freshman year, and her skill -plus Tennessee’s defense – took over that game in the second half.
U.Va. lost 52-46, and despite waiting at U-Hall a few hours afterward watching the other regional finals on TV, I never did see devastated Cavs guard Jenny Boucek leave the locker room.
Tonight will mark just the third time in the series that Virginia and Tennessee won’t be playing in March … and I was in attendance at both their two previous regular-season meetings. One was in December 1994 at a tournament in Richmond. I lived in Virginia then, and was in Las Vegas on a family gathering right up until the day of the game.
That morning, I was scheduled to fly out of Vegas to Chicago and then connect to Richmond. No big deal … except I developed an insane fear that the weather was going to be bad in Chicago and I’d get stuck there and miss the game. This was pre-Internet, so instead I had been constantly calling the Vegas airport _ almost since I’d arrived _ to see if flights were being delayed/cancelled at O’Hare.
It was utter paranoia, but at the time it seemed reasonable behavior. Hey, it was Tennessee- Virginia! Luckily, it was overcast but with no snow in Chicago, so I made it to Richmond in plenty of time. And I think my family was just as glad for me to be gone so they could stop hearing about the weather in Chicago.
The other regular-season meeting was in the State Farm Tipoff Classic in November 1995, when Tennessee won at home by 27 points. What I remember more about that event was that UConn and Louisiana Tech played in the other contest and it was a terrific game – one of the best season-openers I’ve ever seen. Tech won 83-81 over the then-reigning NCAA champs.
It was followed by that Tennessee blowout, but the Cavs improved over the course of that 1995-96 season to get to the point where they nearly defeated the Vols in the aforementioned Elite Eight at U-Hall. But … “nearly” wasn’t good enough.
The best two matchups between Tennessee and Virginia came in back-to-back years, 1990 and 1991, and both were overtime games. The first was U.Va.’s only win against Tennessee, a 79-75 victory that came in the East Regional final in Norfolk. That is a loss Summitt still grimaces over, because the Final Four that season was on her home court, Thompson-Boling Arena. Having to sit and watch and not be able to participate was horrible for her.
The next year in New Orleans, though, the Vols got their revenge with what’s surely one of U.Va. coach Debbie Ryan’s most painful defeats. Tennessee won the NCAA title game 70-67 in New Orleans. That was Tennessee’s third championship – the Vols have won five more since – and it was a “How did this slip from our grasp?” nightmare for a Cavs team that was led then by Dawn Staley.
A lot has happened at U.Va. since 1996 – Ryan survived a frightening battle with cancer that truly seemed to change her perspective on life and enjoying every minute. The Cavs have had to fight for position in the league against a Duke program that became the giant, a North Carolina program that has maintained and grown and a Maryland program that revived from its heyday in the 1980s.
U.Va. moved into a spectacular new arena, and Ryan as landed one of the top recruiting classes for next year. It would be terrific to see the Cavs climb back into the Final Four race in Ryan’s career.
But as for tonight’s matchup, coming into the season, Virginia seemed poised to give a very young Tennessee team a good competition. However, the Cavs have had some worries of their own. Paulisha Kellum will miss the season with an ACL tear, while Lyndra Littles apparently is out with academic concerns.
So it could be another win for the lawnmower.