-- Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, with his sly smile and sometimes ornery laugh, is famous for needling opposing coaches and players with verbal jabs and challenges meant to distract -- famous for it because it so often works.
With the tip-off of Tuesday night's women's national championship game between Connecticut and its biggest rival, Tennessee, only hours away, Auriemma's latest swing is the label of "evil empire" he bestowed upon legendary Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt and her storied program.
"Well," Summitt quipped, "I've been called a lot worse in my career."
Summitt, who publicly characterized Auriemma by saying he is combative whereas she is competitive, isn't about to engage her rival in any real back-and-forth banter. "If I said the things that Geno does, even today, my 80-year-old father would probably take me out behind the shed and whip me with a tobacco stick," she said.
But it is precisely the personality differences between these two coaching greats -- her Southern charm and his blatant arrogance -- and their similar successes on the court that makes this such a compelling final. Their rivalry, which began only eight seasons ago, has escalated out of respect for and, to some degree, envy of the other's program.
As recently as 1998, Tennessee (33-4) was considered far and away the dominant team in the women's game. Summitt's teams have won a record six national titles, including three straight from 1996 to '98. She also not only boasts a .835 winning percentage, the best among active head coaches, but also has 821 career victories, more than any other women's coach in history.
Auriemma, in relative terms, is the newcomer. His Huskies (36-1) abruptly crashed Tennessee's annual party in 1995, recording the first of their two undefeated seasons and first of three championships. Auriemma, who enjoys a .834 winning percentage, picked up his 500th career win Sunday in just 599 total games, making him the second-fastest women's coach to reach that plateau.
Between them, Connecticut and Tennessee have claimed six of the past eight national titles.
"You've got two programs that think they are the best in the country," Auriemma said. "They think they are the best; we think we are the best. We don't have six national championships, though. They do. I'm jealous of them. So I make fun of them.
"It's not personal. I do think sometimes they take themselves a little too seriously, you know, but that's just me. . . . I live in Connecticut. I'm a Red Sox fan. If you talk about Tennessee, they are the Yankees and Pat is George Steinbrenner. We make fun of it.
"There is nothing evil about them -- unless you live in Connecticut. It just is what it is. After you break it all down, she can think what she wants about Connecticut, and I can think what I want about Tennessee in our darkest moments, but you can't help but respect each other."
Despite Connecticut's 63-62 overtime win over Tennessee in January -- their only meeting this season -- the Huskies are the underdogs in this year's finale. Connecticut had four senior starters from a year ago graduate to the WNBA, returning only junior guard-forward Diana Taurasi. Of the team's four new starters, two are freshmen, and another is a sophomore.
Taurasi, left to single-handedly push the new-look and inexperienced Huskies through the season, responded time and again. The national player of the year scored a game-high 25 points in that first meeting with Tennessee, including a three-pointer as regulation time expired that sent the game into overtime. In Sunday's national semifinal against Texas, she scored 11 of Connecticut's last 18 points to turn what had been a nine-point deficit into a 71-69 win.
"If we go into that game saying we are going to shut out Taurasi, let's face it: When that doesn't happen -- which it doesn't happen -- then what are you saying to your team?" Summitt asked. "She is going to get her points. I think as a coaching staff and as a basketball team, we have to understand her greatness and really do what we can to maybe limit touches here or there or change defenses or whatever we need to do."
Tennessee, the deepest squad in this year's championship field, will counter with all-American senior guard Kara Lawson (West Springfield) and the inside presence of senior forward Gwen Jackson. The versatile Lawson did not shoot well in Sunday's 66-56 semifinal win over Duke, but still totaled 8 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. Jackson, who was benched for the final 22 minutes of the Lady Vols' loss at Connecticut in January for her poor performance, led the team Sunday with 25 points and 15 rebounds.
"The positive thing that I take from that game [at Connecticut] is we lost by one in overtime and I only had two points," Jackson said. "I think if I would have just been able to make one play or one defensive stop for my team, we could have easily won. That's definitely been my motivation for the rest of the season."
Her motivation, too, is one last shot at a championship ring. Connecticut knocked Tennessee out of the Final Four in last year's semifinal round and their two previous championships, in 1995 and 2000, also came at the expense of the Lady Vols.
"Strictly for good theater," Auriemma said, "you couldn't ask for a better matchup."