STORRS — While most UConn women’s basketball fans are reveling in the recent struggles of longtime rival Tennessee, former Huskies’ All-American and current assistant coach Shea Ralph is not.
Ralph grew up with warm feelings for the Lady Vols and their coach Pat Summitt. She attended Summitt’s summer camp in Knoxville while in high school. Summitt and her mother, Marsha Mann, were teammates on USA Basketball’s 1973 World University Games team.
So Ralph takes no joy in Tennessee’s slide under coach Holly Warlick that had seen it lose five straight games — heading into Thursday night’s game against No. 1 Notre Dame — for the first time since 1970.
“It’s hard to watch that,” Ralph said. “I really like Holly and I feel for her. But I don’t know what’s going on there. All I know is one of the things that every Connecticut player feels is the last thing you want is to leave this place worse than the way you found it. That’s really easy to do because it’s such a great place. What else can you possibly do? That’s one of the biggest fears and something that is in the back of the mind of a Connecticut player, you don’t want that to be you.
“Holly was there through all their success, too. You take over a program that means so much to you and you’ve worked with someone who was such a great coach, the last thing you want to do is that, obviously.”
Tennessee was 12-1 and ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll three weeks ago. But since Jan. 6, it had lost four games by a total of nine points and suffered a blowout loss at Alabama. The Lady Vols (12-6 overall, 1-5 SEC) have an RPI of 45 and are, without a turnaround, in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the NCAA took over the event in 1982.
Warlick, a player and longtime assistant to Summitt, took over in 2012 after the Hall of Fame coach was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s that would claim her life in 2017. Tennessee has not reached the Final Four since the Lady Vols won their eighth national championship in their 18th Final Four appearance under Summitt in 2008.
UConn has not lost back-to-back games since 1993, a run now at 943 games following its 79-39 rout of SMU Wednesday. The Huskies have passed Tennessee with 11 national titles and 19 Final Four bids under coach Geno Auriemma. But the Hall of Fame coach knows success can get away from a program quickly and it’s very difficult to get back. So does Ralph.
“A lot of people don’t realize that,” she said. “And I get it because they developed an expectation, just like we have day after day. You come to practice every day and we expect to do things that are really, really hard to do and make them look easy. Like Coach Auriemma, the stuff he does is really hard. I don’t know if there’s a great enough appreciation for it. But when you see some stuff like what’s happening at Tennessee happen it reminds you how precious what we have here is and how you have to treat it like that. It’s hard.”
Ralph was the 2000 Final Four Most Outstanding Player when UConn routed the Lady Vols 71-52 in the championship game in Philadelphia.
UConn and Tennessee are scheduled to meet for the first time since 2007 in Connecticut on Jan. 23, 2020.