When Dyzhanay "Dada" Burton, Teira Pendleton and Jasmine Smith started playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball together at age 9, they dreamed of playing on the same high school team.
They never expected to end up in a two-against-one split in Baltimore City's hottest rivalry.
Burton opted for City while Pendelton and Smith went to Poly. For four years, they've played as hard as they could against each other, but the rivalry never left the court.
"We walk past each other and don't say anything until the '0' hits on the clock at the end of the game," Pendleton said. "Then we're sisters again. Before that, I don't know you and you don't know me."
All three seniors said it wasn't difficult to get used to that dynamic, even for point guards Burton and Smith, who often defend each other. Pendleton, meanwhile, is a force in the post.
"We've been playing for so long and every time we compete against each other, even in practice in AAU season, we compete like we hate each other," Burton said. "We know in the end it's only going to make each other better. The best part of maturing as an athlete is you can be great friends, best friends, with your opponent, but on the court it has to be all about the game. On the court, we're not friends, but off the court, it's all love."
Over four years, their teams have met six times with a seventh coming Thursday when No. 7 City (20-3) travels to No. 2 Poly (23-1) at 6 p.m. for the Class 3A East Section I championship.
Poly has won five times, including both meetings this season, a 50-45 regular-season win and a 68-47 win two weeks ago in the Baltimore City Division I championship. The Engineers also beat City for the 2012 Division I title.
City's lone victory came last season, a 48-40 regular-season win that gave the Knights a berth in the city's Division I final.
They want to win, but the wins and losses don't mean that much off the court for three girls who bonded quickly over basketball.
"Me and Teira played for the Cougars first," Smith said, "and one day we saw a new girl come in and we didn't know who she was, but she was really good and it was Dada. Being that young, we practiced a lot more often and we all liked a lot of the same things, so it was easy to talk to Dada and we became instant friends."
Years of practice, games, summer travel and hotel hijinx created a bond that likely never will be broken. The trio and Milford Mill junior Dionna White staged their own dance contests, although Pendleton said she was always the one recording them. They hang out on weekends whenever they can, watching movies and going out to eat or to the mall.
Last summer after an AAU tournament in Kentucky, Burton said, the girls were invited to join a wedding reception at their hotel and spent the evening dancing.
"I still have pictures of us with the bride and groom," Burton said with a laugh. "We had so much fun."
All three went to different middle schools but, for a while, there was a chance they would all go to Poly. They talked about it, but in the end, all three excellent students decided which high school they would attend based on academics.
Burton plans to become an athletic trainer, Pendleton wants to be a doctor and Smith wants to be a veterinarian.
All three played as freshmen, pitting them against each other for the first time.
"I couldn't wait for us to play each other," Smith said. "We played them at City, it was a lot of fun. Of course you want to win, so you're serious but after the game we were all laughing and joking about everything."
Burton, however, had an ally, too, from their AAU team in City assistant coach Tim Burroughs, who coached the Cougars team that later changed its name to the Maryland Lady Shooting Stars.
In Wednesday night's playoffs, the Engineers defeated Centennial, 54-36, and the Knights beat No. 13 Mount Hebron, 62-42, to put them on a collision course yet again.
This, however, may be the last time they step on a basketball court together, though they all plan to play basketball in college. Burton has signed with the College of Charleston while Pendleton and Smith are trying to find the perfect academic and athletic mix.
"I really don't know how the situation will go," Burton said of Thursday's game. "It probably will be more sentimental than all of the other times, because all the other times, we always knew that we had another game coming after that, during the AAU season and during the high school's season, but now, it's not a tomorrow. After this, you go to college."