"It's a special time of year for us. You're always so excited about the fact that it's NC2A tournament time, and everybody steps everything up a notch. There's so much more urgency in the air than you have any other time of year," Sharp said. "We're always really thrilled to be a part of it. We never take that for granted, and we're excited to have the chance to play this week, here in Dallas."
As they have often done in Reunion Arena, the Lady Raiders play Saturday for the chance to survive and advance in a postseason tournament – and to reach the culmination of the championship chase they must overcome a University of Texas women's basketball team.
This time, though, it's not the Lady Longhorns and head coach Jody Conradt who stand between the Lady Raiders and victory. This time, it's UT-Arlington's Mavericks, and head coach Donna Capps. The Mavericks received a No. 13 seed on Selection Sunday -- the first such award in school history -- and a berth in the Philadelphia regional for their first appearance in the NCAA postseason tournament.
This UT team – UT Arlington's Mavericks -- are 21-9 and on a five-game winning streak coming into Saturday night's match. Maverick senior Rola Ogunoye leads the team in scoring, helped by sophomore Terra Wallace.
Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin has joined hands with Texas Tech, and the City of Dallas, to co-host the preliminary rounds at Reunion Arena in an arrangement Sharp called an "experiment with the NCAA." That experiment will, if successful, eventually find no sub-regional rounds where the host team has a home court; like the men's tournament, the aim is to put the postseason participants on neutral floors – or as nearly so as practicable.
Witness Tech's partnership with Texas, seeded No. 3 and playing in Dallas Saturday morning – but the Lady Longhorns are in the Chattanooga regional.
So is Big 12 Conference league mate Oklahoma, seeded No. 6 but playing in Knoxville, Tennessee on opening weekend. Texas faces Oral Roberts, the No. 14 team in the Chattanooga region, while OU plays Arizona. While the winner of Texas' game must overcome the victor between 6th-seeded Georgia and No. 11 Rice, the winner of the Oklahoma game faces the winner of No. 1 LSU vs. No. 16 Stetson.
"Like the other 63 teams (in the tournament), we're excited to be here," Texas' Conradt said Friday. UT-Austin and Tech worked together to try to land a "neutral site" to host a sub-regional competition beginning three years ago, with the bidding process. At that time conditions in both Austin and Lubbock augured against hosting the tournament in either city; so the two schools brought Dallas into the partnership – and the combination succeeded in landing a host site designation for 2005. "I think we're very comfortable in Reunion Arena," Conradt said. "We've played the conference championship tournament here for years, first in the Southwest Conference and then the last two years in the Big 12."
"I want to thank the City of Dallas for helping us host this, and being such a big part of this week for us," she said. "They've really stepped up and done some things that have made it possible, and also I want to thank all the staff from Texas Tech and the University of Texas. When you put something like this together, a lot of folks have to step up and do a lot of extra work, and spend a lot of extra hours. We've had a lot of people at both of our schools who've done that for us, and we really appreciate their efforts, and hope it's a great weekend for everyone in the state of Texas to watch women's basketball.
"They're great teams, talented teams here," Sharp said. "A lot of their coaches are good friends of our coaching staff, and a lot of people that we have a tremendous amount of respect for."
Sharp shifted gears smoothly into describing the Lady Raiders' activities since earning their 16th straight berth in the NCAA tournament. Tech enters postseason play with a 22-7 overall record; they finished tied for third in the Big 12 Conference at 12-4, knotted with Iowa State and Kansas State and a game behind the 13-3 University of Texas Longhorns. Baylor, 14-2, won both the regular season and league tournament crowns en route to their 27-3 record; the Lady Bears are a No. 2 seed and face Illinois State in Seattle Saturday for the chance to advance in the Tempe Regional bracket.
"We are doing nothing but looking at the University of Texas at Arlington, and getting ready to play those guys. Donna Capps has done an outstanding job there," she said. "We know they've really built a better team all year there, and they're playing their best basketball right now. We know we've got a great job in front of us tomorrow night, and we're excited to get started."
Tech senior center Cisti Greenwalt said she felt a key to her increased impact in the paint this year – Conradt called her the most fearsome defender in the conference – came out of her off-court experiences. "I think I've matured as a person and a layer, and I've come out knowing it's my last year. I've seen how hard my teammates have worked, and I've tried to improve on the offense, and not just defensively."
Nine days' rest has been good for the team, according to junior guard Chesley Dabbs. "It's been a good time for us, because we've been able to rest a little bit and to focus on getting our game ready, and we've worked to get our game prepared. We're anxious – we're a little antsy – to play, and I think that will probably help us."
Erin Grant, Tech's standout point guard, confirmed, "We're ready for tournament time. We know it's do or die right now. We have to really leave everything on the floor in every game. If we do that, I think we'll be successful.
"We're very excited. We look at it as starting a new season, and we want to go out and start it with a win tomorrow night."