- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Neither Texas' Jody Conradt nor Texas Tech's Marsha Sharp think of their programs' rivalry as making a gigantic blip on women's basketball's radar screen.
Although they believe it should.
"I don't think it's had as much impact nationally as it probably deserves,'' said Conradt, who Texas team is host to Texas Tech on Sunday. "It's been going on for quite a while and isn't as recognized as some rivalries. You can tell by how our fans react how important it is.
"The rivalry is more with fans than with the coaches and players. A lot of the players have known each other, and have played on the same AAU teams. A lot of them are longtime friends and rivals. That brings a special familiarity to the game.''
This one is televised by Fox Sports Net, with tipoff at 3 p.m. Central. Normally, game times in this column are listed as Eastern. But considering Sharp acknowledged that part of the reason the rivalry is probably less known nationally is because it isn't an East Coast matchup ... well, it felt way too ironic to just rotely list the "Eastern time.''
But Sharp also points out another thing that for a long time kept the matchup from being big shakes: "For the first decade that I was here, we couldn't beat them. You can't have a rivalry if you don't beat each other a little bit.''
The hardcore Texas and Texas Tech fans know the numbers: Texas won the first 37 in a row. March 7, 1991, is known as either the Day of Liberation (for Tech fans) or the Day of Regret (Texas fans). Tech beat Texas 63-61 in the Southwest Conference tournament that year for their first shedding of burnt-orange blood.
Since then, though, Tech's had a slight upperhand, with an 18-13 series edge. However, Texas won all three meetings last season, including in the Big 12 tournament title game.
As best I can tell, there are two types of fans in this rivalry.
Type A: Despises the other program, chortles with glee when it loses and pretty much wishes all its student-athletes would flunk out. Texas fans in this category might snort, "Lubbock. Need I say more?'' Tech fans in this category might sigh with contempt, "Those snots in Austin don't have the common sense God gave a West Texas jackrabbit.''
Type B: Lives and dies and cheers until they're hoarse for their team ... but still feels affection for all those "homegrown Texas girls'' on the other team. Texas fans in this category might say, "Heck, I've seen Erin Grant play since she was, like, 8 months old.'' Tech fans in this category might say, "My best friend's sister lives in Winnsboro and
thinks that Stacy Stephens gal put the sun in the sky.''
This latter group also has become overall Big 12 fans, both because they know the success of the league aids their team and because they just can't help themselves -- they like good players everywhere.
I don't have a guess on the percentage of fans for each type. Suffice to say that on Sunday, though, everybody at the Erwin Center will be going nutty enough that you won't be able to tell the difference anyway.
"If people were to attend our games with each other,'' Sharp said, "there wouldn't be a better atmosphere or rivalry than you get on those days.''
Sharp and Conradt do an admirable job of publicly always being very diplomatic about the other. When you go head-to-head in the same talent-rich state, you can't exactly be golfing buddies. But they don't snipe at each other or not-so-subtly try to harpoon the other's program.
And, admittedly, they've got more to worry about than each other. There's Kim Mulkey-Robertson's Baylor team and the
invigorated-by-Gary-Blair Texas A&M squad also in the Big 12. There's TCU, Houston, SMU, Rice, North Texas, Stephen F. Austin, all the UT-Someplace schools ... then the whole rest of the country that comes into the Great State trying to lure away the talent.
There's so much there, though, that Texas and Texas Tech have always stocked mostly from in state. There are 10 Lone Star Staters on Texas' roster; everyone on Tech's roster except Cisti Greenwalt is a Texan. She's from Clovis, N.M. -- or West Texas West as Sharp calls it.
Greenwalt is sort of a persona non grata anyway now in New Mexico; we're sure Texas gives her "honorary'' citizenship.
Texas Tech was No. 1 in the coaches poll a few weeks ago, but then the program lost 64-63 at Iowa State and lost all-Big 12 guard Jia Perkins for the season. Now Tech is without its two leading scorers from last season -- Plenette Pierson is in the WNBA -- and the go-to scorer role is inherited by freshman Alesha Robertson.
Tech fell 88-87 in double overtime last week at Oklahoma State, a team it had beaten by 63 points a couple of weeks before. So Tech has lost its two games by only a combined two points on the road -- but those losses were to teams in the lower half of the Big 12.
"I don't think we've particularly recovered yet,'' Sharp said of the loss of Perkins. "It's not an excuse, it's the truth about the state of our team right now. But there's nothing we can do about the Perkins situation except try to respond to it. The Big 12 is not a good conference to try to get 'well' in.''
Texas has one league loss, at Baylor, but Conradt has concerns with turnovers. Texas brought back almost everyone from last season's Final Four team, plus added star freshman Tiffany Jackson. Things came together very well for Texas starting around February last season, so the Longhorns would like to see a repeat of that.
All in all, it makes for a rivalry of interest in any time zone. (They'll meet again Feb. 22 in Lubbock at 1 p.m. Central time on ESPN2.)
Sharp sums it up: "It's a couple of quality programs. And in the state of Texas, it's taken basketball to a different level.''
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at email@example.com.