As teams catch up to UConn, Tennessee Lady Vols fall further behind

Notre Dame’s upset over the Connecticut Huskies Friday shows that as the Tennessee Lady Vols fall behind, other women’s basketball teams are catching up.

After falling behind the UConn Huskies in terms of women’s basketball success, Tennessee Lady Vols fans were undoubtedly excited to see them lose off a last-second shot in their Final Four game for a second straight year. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish eliminated Geno Auriemma’s team Friday in a fashion similar to what the Mississippi State Bulldogs did last year.

Such upsets show that women’s college basketball is finally getting more competitive. Here’s the real kicker, though. It’s not like these UConn teams aren’t as good as their best teams. FiveThirtyEight broke down before the tournament how this year’s UConn team may have been Auriemma’s best ever.

However, as broken down on the site, the problem for UConn is other teams are catching up. And finally, it’s resulting in less dominance.

The problem? The Tennessee Lady Vols have nothing to do with closing that gap. As the two teams to end the UConn dynasty the past two years face off for the national title on Sunday, Tennessee will be sitting at home, failing to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

Women’s college basketball was propelled to new heights thanks to Tennessee’s and UConn’s rivalry. Those two towered over the sport, and from 1987 to 2008, they combined for 13 of the 22 national titles won during that time. From 1995 to 2008, they combined for 10 of the 14 potential national titles.

For a while, Tennessee was the one that knew how to be a champion. After all, UConn won it in 1995, but the Lady Vols showed they were still boss by ruining their perfect season in 1997 en route to their second straight title.

That changed when Diana Taurasi came. She won the Huskies three straight national titles, all three times at Tennessee’s expense in the NCAA Tournament. However, when Pat Summitt cancelled the series back in 2007, the Tennessee Lady Vols were re-establishing their dominance.

They won two straight with Candace Parker in 2007 and 2008, and at that point Tennessee was back in control. But nobody could have predicted that cancelling the rivalry would hurt Tennessee more than UConn.

Since then, the Lady Vols haven’t made a Final Four. Meanwhile, UConn ascended to unprecedented dominance over the sport that Tennessee never reached. And now, by the time the dynasty is seeing cracks, the two programs are on completely different ground.

The end of UConn’s dominance comes from teams that have supplanted the Tennessee Lady Vols. Another SEC team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, ended the dynasty last year. And that resulted in the national title for another SEC team, the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Now, this year, Mississippi State is back in the title game looking to win it all. They’re facing Notre Dame, the second team to end UConn’s dominance and another Tennessee Lady Vols rival.

However, Holly Warlick’s program is nowhere in sight. It’s a difficult pill to swallow on Rocky Top, but it’s one nobody can ignore. Tennessee and UConn was once the Celtics-Lakers. It nationalized women’s basketball. UConn pulling ahead this decade was bad enough. But the worst part is that the Tennessee Lady Vols are no longer the team you can count on to stand in their way. They have to count on other rivals to do that.