Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Oh, Those Scarlet Nights

Before I covered the Red Sox for the Courant, I spent five years on the UConn women's beat, covering the team during the Taurasi Era, its most dynastic championship period. The UConn-Tennessee games were like the 1980s Celtics and Lakers.

UConn-Rutgers? That was like Celtics-Pistons. Forget Nicole Michael playing footsie with Geno Auriemma. Kids stuff compared to Cappie Pondexter and Linda Miles. Rutgers travels to Hartford tonight in a snowstorm, and that conjures memories of the most surreal moments in the history of the game's most-bitter rivalry.

The two snow games, both in the Big East tournament, are remembered for different reasons, but with the same denomenator. The perception of Rutgers as a thuggish team, and the defiant, if not downright eccentric, personality of Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, added so much animosity to the proceedings, the pressure released itself in the oddest of ways.

In 2005, it was Cappiegate at the Civic Center, with Pondexter confonting Geno postgame and Stringer accusing Auriemma of some in-game bad words towards a Rutgers player, which led to a thrilling three-day festival of he-said/he-didn't-say. Aueriemma was cleared by the league and Rutgers eventually apologized, but the anger of UConn fans toward Stringer was never more intense.

Stringer was never more intense than in 2001, during a blizzard so intense, it made the Gampel roof leak. That semifinal night was the most bizarre scene in the 7-plus years I was around the team. That was the night beat writer Matt Eagan and I brought blankets and pillows to the arena, becuase we expected to be stranded inside Gampel because of the growing blizzard.

Then Bill Sehl climbed the roof to fix the leak, even as UConn was destroying Rutgers on the court. The game ended very late, and writers were on serious deadline when Stringer appeared before the microphones.

To the writers shock and dislay (but mostly shock), Stringer chose not to discuss the game, but instead read a letter -- a very long letter -- of ndignant protest against Connecticut Post columnist Chris Ellsbury, who had a month earlier ripped Rutgers for its rough style. Stringer even called out his name, "Is there a Mr. Ellsbury here?" she inquired at the outset, then whipped out the multi-page letter. It was women's basketball's greatest Mike Gundy Moment.

When the two teams met last April, it was for a ticket to the Final Four, and the Huskies prevailed, incident-free. Tonight, only UConn is playing like a Final Four team, and this game figures to lack the usual fire. Too bad. They have a tough act to follow.

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