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Tip-Off host Texas Tech one of event's staples

Texas Tech and the city of Lubbock will host the opening "party" of the college women's basketball season Sunday. Baylor, the 2005 national champion, meets Georgia at 1 p.m. ET, followed by Texas Tech against LSU. Both games are on ESPN2.

But as she looked ahead to this event, Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp also flashed back to the way this all started a dozen years ago.

In November 1993, Texas Tech defeated Vanderbilt and Tennessee downed Ohio State in the inaugural State Farm Tip-off Classic in Jackson, Tenn. That was back when the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame was still just an idea that
people were trying to raise money to make real.

The original plan was to build it in Jackson, which is in the Western part of the state on Interstate-40 between Memphis and Nashville. There was talk that it would get lots of traffic from the interstate travelers, but -- having lived in Jackson for my first newspaper job in 1988-89 -- I considered that wishful thinking at best or delusional at worst. Knoxville or
Nashville seemed infinitely better choices -- that is, if they actually wanted visitors at the Hall of Fame.

Of course, Knoxville ended up being the Hall's home, and it's a must-see if you enjoy the sport. And the Tip-Off Classic is firmly established as the first "big event" in the women's season.

That 1993 Tip-Off Classic had three teams from the previous season's Final Four -- and it's kind of funny, in retrospect, to think that Tennessee was the odd team out in that regard that year. Texas Tech had defeated Vandy in the national semifinals in April 1993, then beat Ohio State in the championship game.

Tech had lost key players Sheryl Swoopes and Krista Kirkland from that '93 team. And while Vandy also had lost two starters going into 1993-94, the Commodores did have back their "biggest" -- literally -- star, 6-foot-10 Heidi
Gillingham.

And so while it's long-ago lost in the shuffle of passing time for even big Texas Tech fans, that November 1993 win over Vandy in the first Tip-Off Classic is still important to Sharp.

"We were fortunate to beat Vanderbilt, and I think of it as one of the biggest moments in our program," Sharp said. "Because it helped confirm to everyone, even ourselves, that we were going to be 'a program' that would compete on a national level -- and not a one-year flash in the pan."

Sure, it has been frustrating to Sharp that she has not made a return trip to the Final Four. In 1998, everything seemed to be set up so perfectly for Tech, which was a No. 1 seed and a regional host. Four victories at home would have meant a trip to the Final Four in Kansas City, where Tech had just won the Big 12 tournament title. But, in one of those losses that years later still makes coaches wake up in the middle of the night, Tech fell in the second round to Notre Dame.

However, Texas Tech has been to the Elite Eight in 1995, 2000 and 2003. And since moving into United Spirit Arena in 1999, the program has averaged more than 12,000 fans per home game each of the past six seasons. That coincides with the Big 12 being the top-drawing conference in the nation now for six years in a row.

"We're really excited about hosting this event, and we hope that it will be a great atmosphere for college women's basketball," Sharp said. "We know our fans are going to come out and watch both games. They're going to know
who's playing for Georgia, Baylor and LSU. They know about those teams. Twelve years ago, there wasn't that kind of knowledge by very many fans. This event mirrors how women's basketball has grown overall."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.