It began in olden days, when girls basketball was six-on-six, players wore skirts and their parents made up most of the crowd.
But even then, half a century ago, the game between Mercy and Institute of Notre Dame had a heightened feel.
"That was the game with the biggest adrenaline rush," said Gail Parr, 63, who played for Mercy. "We'd get so psyched it was insane. My junior year , I remember a red-haired girl from IND getting the tap off the center jump and racing in for a layup. Don't you know, she scored at our basket."
Tonight, the schools meet for the 50th year in a contest traditionally known simply as The Game. (IND has taken to calling it The Big Game.) Nearly 4,000 students, alumnae, nuns and family members are expected to fill SECU Arena at Towson University and shout themselves silly at a contest between teams with a combined record of 13-20. Not that numbers matter.
"It's not always about watching good basketball," said Marianne Kelly Hruz (Mercy, '83). "We could have turned the ball over every other time down the court and the crowd would still cheer us because this was our moment."
How big is The Game? Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori is expected to attend to bless both teams beforehand.
"He's looking forward to it," said Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "The archbishop has heard a lot about the game and plans to stay for it, spending an equal amount of time on both sides. He brings no prejudice to the contest."
Mercy leads the series 30-19. From the outset, adding to the hype, the game has been played mostly in large venues, including Loyola Maryland, UMBC and the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena), which had it from 1967 to 1970. Then, Mercy and IND met in preliminaries to Baltimore Bullets games.
Jerry Hahn recalled arriving early for an NBA game at the Civic Center, with buddies from Archbishop Curley, and watching the end of the girls game.
"Afterward, we saw all of these players walking around crying," Hahn said. "I thought, 'Why? For a basketball game?'"
Years later, when he became the IND coach, he understood. Once, during The Game, while kneeling on the court over an injured player, Hahn said he "felt all of these eyes [in the stands] bearing down on me. I thought, 'My gosh, this is a high school game between unranked teams.'
"The rivalry is so big a deal that I don't ever see it being kicked to the curb."
Hahn coached IND from 1982 to 1993 and, later, from 2011 to 2013. Each year, he devised new ways to prepare for Mercy.
"Once, I sensed the girls were nervous at practice the day before, so we put the basketballs away and played volleyball instead," Hahn said. "I could feel their relief — and we won the game."
In 2012, the coach asked a longtime nun at IND to give a pregame pep talk. In the locker room, Sister Hildie Marie Sutherland corralled the players and, in an emphatic voice, told them: Keep your eyes up, your hands out and your feet moving.
It was, Hahn said, a hypnotic moment.
"The girls were mesmerized; all of their eyes were dead-set on Sister Hildie," the coach said. "She led us out of the locker room that night."
IND won, 33-32.
The Mercy Magic has pulled rabbits from its hat, too. In the 1990s, fearing her team would be cowed by the din of the crowd, then-coach Mary Ella Marion blared music during practice to acclimate her players. She also held up cue cards during games so the Magic could tell what plays to run.
"I knew they couldn't hear me for all the noise. I even colored in the letters," said Marion, who coached Mercy from 1985 to 2013 and is now dean of students.
How loud are the fans?
"It's deafening. It's maddening. You'd think the Ravens were playing," said Maribel Esteban Budosh, 57. She was IND's mascot in 1976, when the school's nickname was the Indians and Mercy was known as the Sharpshooters. Budosh wore moccasins and braided hair and stomped her feet, along with the crowd, to the pounding beat of the IND drum.
"You could hear that drum banging 5miles away," said Parr, who, after playing for Mercy, coached there for nine years. "We had students dressed like cowgirls who carried cap pistols and went 'Pow! Pow! Pow! Shoot the Indians!' And IND would answer, 'Scalp the Sharpshooters!' It was so politically incorrect that, eventually, we both changed our nicknames." (IND is now the Penguins.)
All the hoopla resonates with players.
"I was nervous right up to the tipoff," said Chandrea Jones (IND, '05). "The game gets your stomach all riled up. I'd run to the bathroom right before the start to try and calm down."
The experience helped when she got to college.
"I wasn't as nervous when I stepped onto the court at Syracuse," said Jones, who starred there and who now plays professionally in Europe.
For Maggie Marion, bursting out of the locker room was an emotional trigger.
"It's like 'Friday Night Lights' in football," said Marion (Mercy, '09), whose mother coached the team. "One side of the stands is all blue [for IND], the other red — and they're cheering and booing at the same time. Seldom do young female athletes have the opportunity to experience that kind of intensity."
Thirty-three years after graduation, Mercy's Hruz clings to recollections of the game and its revelry.
"The week beforehand, you walk around school like you're queen of the halls," she said. "People whom you'd never talked to much come up and say, 'Good luck Friday.' Your parents give you flowers — I got red and white carnations — and presents.
"At the game, you can feel the tension between the teams and even the cheerleaders. The crowd cheers every basket, every whistle — and the nuns are right in the thick of it."
Hruz will attend tonight, along with alumnae from both teams who now come to watch and holler.
"As a player, I never got to see the halftime show," said Liana Burns (IND, '06). "We were having tense conversations in the locker room while everyone else was having fun. Now I can appreciate it all."
Routinely, rivals who squared off in high school meet up at The Game and remember those days:
"We'll get together beforehand and share some hugs," Hruz said. "Then it's off to our respective sides to root for Mercy or IND."
Afterward, she said, "we'll all go out and have a beer."