Relative to the rest of her performances this year, Paige Bueckers, UConn’s freshman phenom, was looking unusually freshman and not-too-phenom for most of the No. 3 Huskies’ game at Tennessee on Thursday night. With just a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, she had shot 2-of-13 from the field and 0-of-5 from three. The No. 25 Lady Vols were guarding her well on the perimeter and closing the driving lanes; she’d had to make up for a bad shooting night with her typically pro defense (three steals!) and smart passes. She was lucky to have some real unshaken stars on the other end of them: One of Bueckers’s better assists, late in the game, was a gorgeous no-look pass to junior Christyn Williams, the team’s leading scorer, who was probably robbed of some glory by what came next.
While making that pass or just after it, Bueckers rolled her ankle. She stayed in the game a few possessions longer, but it seemed like she could barely move, and she exited to get her ankle taped up before literally limping back onto the court with a little over a minute left. Tennessee cut UConn’s lead to two.
It’s funny how quickly missed shots can be forgotten. On UConn’s next possession, the shot clock down to three seconds, guard Evina Westbrook passed to a wide-open Bueckers, who hadn’t been able to buy a bucket all night, until that one—a three to put UConn up by five with 24 seconds left and ice the game. UConn left Knoxville with a 67-61 win.
If you ask the UConn crowd most days, this is a rivalry that’s lost all of its meaning post-Pat Summitt. (They may admit it was briefly recently re-ignited when Westbrook transferred to UConn from Tennessee last year, and there was associated transfer waiver drama.) “I think people have to realize it’s not a big deal anymore,” Auriemma told the Hartford Courant before the game. “I don’t feel it. Maybe it’s because it was never about Tennessee and Connecticut. Maybe because it was Pat and Geno after a while.” But Geno can’t have it both ways. Thursday’s game was a special win with a special ending, and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge they were special for a reason: The flames of rivalry and revenge are never entirely extinguished.