It made sense that coaches advised identical twins Jennifer and LeeAnne Wirth to play one-on-one against each other growing up. Few of their peers, after all, had the luxury of a doppelganger, a perfectly equal counterpart who could help them hone their basketball skills.
Competing as rivals, each sister could become the best version of herself.
Sound philosophy. Problematic in practice for the twins who now start alongside each other for No. 16 Gonzaga.
"We eventually had to cut that out," Jenn Wirth recalled. "We ended in an argument every single time. We're so competitive. It would end up carrying over off the court for days after."
The problem with competing against someone just like you is, well, they are just like you.
"Somebody fouled, somebody traveled, somebody cheated," Jenn continued. "It was pretty much anything you could think of if you were losing because we knew the other one was going to have bragging rights -- and we were not good with that."
Gonzaga is again the team to beat beyond the major conferences, as it often has been since reaching its first Sweet 16 a decade ago. That is in no small part because of 6-foot-3 twins who supply 20.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. What they discovered in moments like those one-on-one games is that the best version of each of them requires both of them. Compared to older siblings growing up, compared to each other their first two seasons in college, they knew better. They don't share an identity, each her own person. But they are who they are together.
"When LeeAnne does well, I feel like I could do well," Jenn said. "It would be weird to have that missing piece."
The youngest daughters of Diane and Alan Wirth, the latter a former baseball player who reached the majors with the Oakland Athletics, have always been their own tandem within a team. The closest sibling in age, Theresa, is six years older than Jenn and LeeAnne. Sisters Alana and Christina are 15 and 12 years older, respectively. An all-conference standout at Vanderbilt and WNBA draft pick who played with the Indiana Fever, Christina remembers the twins decked out in face paint at Commodores games when they were still in grade school.
All three older sisters starred at Seton Catholic High School in Arizona. All three played college basketball, Alana first at Barry University, then Christina at Vanderbilt and finally Theresa at the University of Denver. There was ample time for the legend to grow by the time the twins began to figure out who they were rather than merely who they were related to.
"There was definitely a lot of pressure on us," LeeAnne said. "People would always tell us we had big shoes to fill. At that point, it got to be like we had to come to the realization that we're all different and we're all going to make different impacts ... and we have to kind of make our own path. I think [it has] helped us grow into the people we are and gain individuality."
That was also about the time, as high school began, that they found themselves for the first time alone at home after the last sibling moved out. Before then, with at least Theresa and older brother Joe around for much of their childhood, the house was always hectic. And with so many people around, alliances could and did shift. Depending on the day, as LeeAnne noted wryly, you might be closer with some siblings than others. Suddenly there was no choice but detente.
"I think that it really made us have to rely on each other more because it really was just us two in the house," LeeAnne said. "I think we got closer. We were always good friends, but the older we've gotten, the less we fought. And even when we do fight, it's over something really dumb and 5 minutes later it's like, 'Hey, do you want to get a coffee?'"
Both said they knew from an early age that they wanted a college experience like the one they saw Christina enjoy. She and teammate Jennifer Risper led Vanderbilt to a Sweet 16 appearance and forged a friendship beyond basketball that meant Risper was not only maid of honor at Christina's wedding but is godmother to her newborn baby. In the case of the twins, they didn't need to go looking for that friend. They knew they wanted to play together.
Their parents, having seen the twins unhappily play on separate club teams for a year in high school, were on board. The resistance, LeeAnne said, came from their sisters.
"For all three of us, college was just a real time of growth and independence and starting to learn to stand on your own two feet," Christina said. "So I think that we wanted that for the twins and didn't want them to, in a sense, take the easy way out or use one another as a crutch. But that hasn't been the case at all.
"They both can very well stand on their own two feet and handle themselves just fine."
That bond held even as they were unwittingly pitted against each other their first two seasons at Gonzaga -- less directly than those one-on-one games, to be sure, but competing for the same scarce minutes on a talented veteran team nonetheless. Jenn, ranked among the top 100 recruits and 19th among forwards by ESPN Hoopgurlz -- LeeAnne missed the top 100 and ranked 22nd among forwards -- played close to twice as many minutes as her sister when they were freshmen.
That was difficult, both conceded. But not as difficult for LeeAnne as if it had been a stranger taking those minutes. And the same held true the next season. Expected to take over a starting role as a sophomore, Jenn instead missed time early with a broken finger. She never did claim the starting job last season -- because LeeAnne stepped into that role and excelled.
Suddenly it was Jenn being asked over and over how it felt to lose the job to her sister.
"It sucks," Jenn offered. "I worked really hard in the offseason to try and get that spot. But so did LeeAnne. I had every single workout with her, and I saw her working just as hard as I was and putting in the extra work. So I couldn't be mad about that."
Now they start together for a team that is an overtime loss at Stanford away from still being unbeaten. And those who have known them longest are intent on enjoying the next year and a half, after which the real world might finally force them to go their separate ways.
"They're very uniquely themselves," Christina said. "But I think that you can't spend that much time around someone and not have similar mannerisms and think the same way and things like that. They're certainly not the same person, but it's like you don't get one without the other."
Talking on the phone with Jenn a few weeks ago, Christina asked who the better shooter was these days. She wasn't even sure why she asked, just conversation probably. But Jenn danced around the question, suggesting she and LeeAnne were pretty even. She wouldn't let herself be pinned down, wouldn't antagonize or annoy LeeAnne with an answer that would surely find its way back to her eventually. Their older sister smiled to herself.
"Good for you for not taking the bait that I just gave you," Christina thought.
It doesn't much matter who is better. For Gonzaga, it matters that they're best together.