NEW YORK -- The update on Pat Summitt's health caught Geno Auriemma by surprise. It's simply the news nobody wanted to hear, especially her former rival, who built UConn by trying to model off her success coaching Tennessee.
Summitt's family said Sunday that the last few days have been difficult for the former Tennessee women's basketball coach as her Alzheimer's disease progresses. Auriemma, who had been traveling back from Europe all day, heard the update at the Phoenix Mercury-New York Liberty game.
"It's sad to see her family go through this," Auriemma told The Associated Press. "It's really difficult."
Auriemma credited Summitt for raising the bar for him and countless other coaches.
"She was the one that everyone tried to emulate. That was the program everyone tried to be," he said.
He remembered when they first faced off in 1995 when Summitt agreed to come to Storrs and play the Huskies on national television.
"I don't think anyone was surprised she wanted to play in that game," Auriemma said. "That's what she did. We try to do that. Play everybody anytime, anywhere. That's how she built her program to where it is."
Amid reports of Summitt's failing health over the weekend, her family issued a statement asking for prayers and saying that the 64-year-old Summitt is surrounded by the people who mean the most to her. The family also asked for privacy.
The statement was posted on the Pat Summitt Foundation's website and was issued by Erin Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Summitt family.
"She's meant so much to the game and the sport. I've always had wonderful interactions with her when I was a broadcaster," Rebecca Lobo said. "I was completely unaware until I saw the stuff this morning. It made me really sad."
For all the talk of the rivalry between UConn and Tennessee, which ran from that first game in 1995 to the last in 2007, the Huskies respected Summitt.
"You can't say enough about her," Diana Taurasi said after the Mercury's OT win. "If it wasn't for her, we probably wouldn't be playing in Madison Square Garden. Connecticut never would have been Connecticut. She made people take notice of the sport at a time when it probably wasn't easy. She forced the hand. She was the one.
"It's really sad for her family and her friends, her ex-teammates. Her basketball family is hurting right now. Everyone is."
Swin Cash was emotional after Sunday's game, talking about the legendary coach who recruited her in high school. Cash said her college choice came down to Connecticut and Tennessee. She picked the Huskies.
"Out of my class, I was the only one that had that decision," Cash said choking up at times. "It was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do was call her up and tell her I wasn't coming. I respected what she stood for so much."
Cash recalled that every time she saw Summitt after turning down Tennessee, the coach would ask how her mother and grandmother were doing.
"I continue to pray for her. It doesn't matter how many times we beat Tennessee or they beat us, my level of respect for Coach Summitt was right up there," Cash said. "She was one of the best ever to do it, being the trailblazer that she was."
Cash smiled remembering how Summitt came and spoke at Cash's athletic awards banquet when she was in 10th grade.
"She walked in, and everyone was like, 'That's Pat Summitt,'" Cash said. "I was like, 'I know, she's been recruiting me.' It was just the presence she had when she walked into a room."
Taurasi echoed that sentiment when she recalled the first time she saw Summitt in person.
"I was playing in an AAU tournament in Cocoa Beach and she walked in the gym," she said. "I grew up watching SEC basketball as it was the only thing on CBS. To see her walk in a gym, you truly understand it was serious."
Geno Auriemma, ex-Huskies pulling for Pat Summitt
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