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Tuesday, April 6, 2004
Updated: April 7, 4:42 AM ET
Summitt, Auriemma are competitive, relentless

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- The feud won't stop here.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee's Pat Summitt will be back at each other's throats fighting for the women's championship again for the same reasons they were there Tuesday night.

They're relentless rivals and the best in the game.

This time and for the sixth straight meeting, Auriemma came away smiling, winning his fifth national title -- one shy of Summitt's record -- and third in a row with the Huskies' 70-61 victory over the Lady Vols.

They shook hands, spoke briefly and shared a chuckle at their introductions before the game, as if they enjoyed all the fuss over their backbiting. Then they put on their game faces and went to work, matching offenses, defenses and wits.

When it ended, Auriemma and Summitt spoke again, Auriemma gently wrapping his left arm around her shoulder. For a brief moment, at least, their mutual respect replaced any hard feelings.

"It was a cordial conversation," Summitt said, refusing, as he had, to reveal details.

They could have passed for brother and sister, maybe kissing cousins, if they weren't so busy trying to bash each other.

They prowled the sideline with the same ferocity and fiery eyes -- his dark, hers bright blue. They barked at their players and the refs, pointed fingers and shook fists, burned calories by the minute and strained the neat creases of their perfectly tailored gray suits.

Wisecracks, jabs and personal histories aside, they have more in common than either would ever be willing to admit.

They both hate losing, no matter who's on the other side. They know how to recruit, how to replace stars, keep continuity in their programs, and get the most out of their players. They're shouters who are tough disciplinarians.

"I think Geno has established himself as one of the very best teachers and coaches in the women's game," Summitt said after this stinging loss. "His teams reflect his personality. They have a toughness about them, an aggressiveness, and obviously a confidence.

"I have a lot of respect for Geno and I have a lot of respect for this Connecticut program."

Auriemma didn't gloat in victory or claim his program is the best in the country. He knows that Tennessee may well be back on top next year after recruiting five All-Americans.

"I'm comfortable with where we are and I'm comfortable with Tennessee being right there where they are," he said. "And I'd be comfortable the next couple of years if they start winning championships and we finish second, because I understand that's the nature of this game. This is our run, this is our time, right now. '96, '97, '98, when they won three in a row ... it was their time. It changed for them and it's going to change for us."

Auriemma, who learned his hoops and street smarts in Philadelphia, alternately flashes a prickly wit and fun-loving demeanor. Summitt, from Henrietta, Tenn., balances rigor with a private warmth that fosters loyalty.

A year older at 51, Summitt has 852 victories in her 30-year career at Tennessee -- tops among women coaches and trailing only Dean Smith (879) and Adolph Rupp (876) among all college coaches. Her six NCAA titles are second only to John Wooden's 10 at UCLA.

Auriemma has 532 victories in 20 years. Their winning percentages are identical: .836.

No doubt Auriemma will join Summitt someday in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and perhaps their frosty relationship will have melted a little by then.

"It's silly," UConn star Diana Taurasi said of the feud going into the game. "At some point they are going to get past this. They are the key to women's basketball and it would be nice to see them get along.

"He is either an arrogant guy who likes to run his mouth or a guy who just likes to poke fun," Taurasi added, "and Coach Summitt, she's old school."

Mickie DeMoss, Kentucky's coach and former longtime assistant to Summitt, saw it differently.

"Pat's a Southern country girl who doesn't know how to respond to Geno," DeMoss said. "I've told her, 'Don't take it personally, take it lighthearted.' "

That's not likely.

Auriemma once called Tennessee the "evil empire," but his empire has dominated in recent years, beating the Lady Vols in their last four national title games and eight of the last nine times they played.

Maybe his attitude has something to do with the way he felt like an outsider on the women's basketball scene from the beginning and when his teams started winning championships in 1995.

"I remember a comment was made that, you know, there's been a lot of newcomers, there's been a lot of people that have pretended to be good," he said.

Old Dominion, Southern California, Texas, Virginia, Stanford _ they were all good teams at times.

UConn was just starting to make a national splash, in New Orleans in 1991, reaching its first Final Four. That was the year Tennessee won its second NCAA title. Auriemma got noticed, but came across as cocky.

"When we started winning championships in 1995, when we got to be really, really good, we were like the new kids on the block, and, hey, isn't it great, here comes someone else," he said. "I remember a comment was made that, you know, there's been a lot of newcomers, there's been a lot of people that have pretended to be good."

Old Dominion, Southern California, Texas, Virginia, Stanford -- they were all good teams at times, he said.

"But only Tennessee stood on the mountaintop forever," he said. "And there was a sense that after a year or two we would just go away and go back to tiny Storrs and say, 'Boy, wasn't it great to visit New York City once.' But a funny thing happened. We kept coming back."

That's when things "got a little bit dicey," he said, in the rivalry between UConn and Tennessee, and between him and Summitt, "because we wouldn't go away."

It was fitting, then, he said, that in order for UConn to win its third straight national title, it had to get past the last team to do it -- Tennessee.

"Nobody," Auriemma said, "can say we backed into it."