Can USC become UConn’s next rival?

Breanna Stewart and Connecticut clash with Jatarie White and South Carolina on Monday, the second consecutive season the Huskies and Gamecocks have met as the top two teams in the AP poll. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

They have no equal, not with 10 national titles, not with previous winning streaks of 70 and 90 games, not with 197 weeks ranked at No. 1. But the juggernaut Connecticut women’s basketball program has certainly had rivals, opponents that for a little while didn’t blink when they looked the Huskies in the eye.

First it was Tennessee, the program that set the standard in the women’s game, and viewed UConn as an upstart in the empire Pat Summitt had built. More recently it’s been Notre Dame, which slugged it out with the Huskies first for Big East titles, and later in the Final Four.

Now, a new contender has arrived. No. 2 South Carolina (22-0) hosts No. 1 Connecticut (22-0) at 7 p.m. Monday in a sold-out Colonial Life Arena. It’s the second meeting in as many seasons between the Gamecocks and Huskies as the top two teams in America, and perhaps the next step in the series becoming every bit the rivalry UConn’s games against the Volunteers and Irish have been.

“Could this potentially be the next new rivalry outside of what Connecticut and Notre Dame have? Yes, it could be,” said Debbie Antonelli, one of the top television analysts in women’s basketball, who played at North Carolina State and lives in Mount Pleasant.

“I think they definitely consider South Carolina a huge threat, and I think they love the moment of the big game,” she added of UConn. “Their conference is not as strong, and they’re not challenged like South Carolina inside their own league. So I think Connecticut looks for games like this.”

With the American Athletic Conference offering little competition, UConn loads up on stout non-conference foes — the Huskies have already played (and beaten) Ohio State, Nebraska, Maryland, Florida State and Notre Dame this season. But only the Irish have stood as anything approaching a rival to Connecticut, because they’ve occasionally managed to come out on top, and on the game’s biggest stage.

That’s the next step for South Carolina, which last season went to Gampel Pavilion ranked No. 1, and was humbled by the second-ranked Huskies 87-62. USC had played UConn just twice previously, losing by lopsided scores in Storrs, Conn., in 2008 and in Columbia the next year. A late basket by Notre Dame prevented the Gamecocks and Huskies from meeting for the national title last season.

Contrast that with Notre Dame and Connecticut, who have played six times just in the Final Four, twice with the Irish coming out on top. If USC and UConn is to become the next great rivalry in women’s basketball, the Gamecocks may have to beat the Huskies (22-0) not just Monday in Columbia — but also in Indianapolis in April.

“The Tennessee rivalry became what it was, and the Notre Dame rivalry became what it still is, because there was a lot at stake when they played. They would meet in the Final Four, they would meet for the national championship, and they would beat one another,” said former Huskies All-American Rebecca Lobo, now an analyst with ESPN.

“I can see it getting there if they can start playing one another in the Final Four, when things really matter, and if South Carolina could beat Connecticut a few times. But you’d have to get to those high stakes for it to be what those other two rivalries have become.”

Connecticut’s first rival was created thanks in part to television. In his book “Unrivaled,” Jeff Goldberg writes that it was ESPN, eager to add a marquee women’s basketball matchup, which put together the inaugural game between UConn and Tennessee in 1995. The Lady Vols were the era’s dominant program, with three national crowns at the time.

So when the Huskies won that first game 77-66, the ramifications were seismic. “The first time they beat (Tennessee), up in Storrs, it was incredible benchmark for their program,” Antonelli said. Two months later, UConn and head coach Geno Auriemma beat Tennessee again — this time, for the Huskies’ first national championship.

And suddenly a full-fledged rivalry was born, one which saw UConn and Tennessee play each other twice annually, and often three times if their paths met in the Final Four. Games became tense and heated. At the height of the rivalry, the relationship between Auriemma and Summitt was “icy at best,” Goldberg wrote.

Auriemma once jokingly referred to Tennessee as “the Evil Empire.” USA Today wrote in 2003 that “Auriemma has replaced former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier as the coach Vols fans love to hate.” While the relationship between the coaches improved, the games always carried so much weight. UConn and Tennessee played 22 times, six of those in the Final Four.

“At the time, Tennessee was the established team, and here comes Geno on the rise,” Antonelli recalled. “He wasn’t afraid to challenge them on or off the court. And the rivalry always had so much on the line.”

Connecticut’s rivalry with Notre Dame progressed in a similar manner. With both programs in the Big East, they played two or three times annually, and initially the Huskies had little trouble. The Irish lost their first 11 meetings with UConn, but when they finally broke through, did so in a huge way — by beating the Huskies twice in 2001, including in the Final Four en route to the national crown.

The two programs pushed each other. Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw began attracting more athletic players like Skylar Diggins, and running a Princeton-style system similar to UConn’s. The Huskies responded to that Final Four loss in 2001 by going unbeaten the following season, and winning the first of three consecutive crowns — two of them over old nemesis Tennessee.

Notre Dame and UConn are no longer in the same conference, but they still play annually, and often again in the NCAA Tournament. Last season’s national championship game marked the fifth straight year the two programs had met in the Final Four. In that context, South Carolina and head coach Dawn Staley have a lot of catching up to do.

“They haven’t had many chances to play (UConn),” Antonelli said of the Gamecocks. “So they’re really, really early in this. I wouldn’t want to put that much pressure on Dawn, saying they have to beat them. But they have to play them to beat them, and that’s what she’s doing.”

No surprise, then, Staley expects the series to continue beyond this season. “Absolutely, we want to continue it,” she said. “I think it’s great for us, I think it’s great for Connecticut. I think it’s great for women’s college basketball, to have the top teams in the country play each other.”

When they walk to their benches Monday, Staley and Auriemma will be more than opposing head coaches in the biggest women’s game of the year. They’ll also be colleagues on the U.S. national team, where Staley worked as an assistant to Auriemma in the 2014 world championships, and will do so again in this year’s Olympics.

That’s a very different dynamic from Connecticut’s series with Notre Dame and Tennessee. McGraw hasn’t worked with USA Basketball, and Summitt was a gold-medal-winning head coach in her own right. Staley hasn’t just coached against Auriemma — she’s helped run his practices, been in his timeouts. On the national team, she’s his heir apparent.

That relationship almost certainly bleeds over into this game, fostering not only a more collegial atmosphere, but perhaps even affording a tactical advantage to USC. It didn’t matter in last season’s blowout in Gampel Pavilion, but in a closer game, it certainly might.

“Dawn has had that chance to learn and glean and listen and strategize, and be in a timeout with him,” Antonelli said. “I think it’s a huge advantage for her to have some idea of what he might do. What’s his philosophy out of a timeout? What did he think about this? Any of that has to be somewhat helpful.”

If the Gamecocks indeed follow the path of the Volunteers and Irish and begin to clash with the Huskies regularly in the Final Four, the relationship between the two coaches may well become different. To this point USC and UConn have played just three times previously, all of them in the regular season.

“If they meet with bigger stakes, and if South Carolina can win some games, the tenor will change,” Lobo said. “I think the bigger the stakes, it affects things. It would affect their relationship. That’s just the way it is. So if it goes that course, I don’t see it becoming like coach Auriemma and coach Summitt, that one stretch where there seemed to be so much dislike there. ... But I think it would change.”

With how Staley has built a program which plays consistently at an elite level, USC certainly appears capable of elevating what is now an anticipated, late-season non-conference game into full-fledged rivalry. But that evolution hinges on the Gamecocks eventually winning — if not Monday, then perhaps later this season.

“The more times you have a crack at them, you learn more and more about yourself, and you learn more and more about why they are as good as they are,” Staley said. And everyone learns more and more about what this series between the two top teams in America could ultimately become.

“All of us on the outside kind of perceive South Carolina as kind of the next biggest challenge for Connecticut,” Lobo said. “Notre Dame has been there for the last four or five years, and you see South Carolina as the next program that could become a big rival to them. I’m certain that Connecticut is looking forward to the game, and sees this as a huge challenge.”