North Carolina 75, Tennessee 63
CLEVELAND (AP)—Ivory Latta flexed her muscles at LeBron James, shook hands with Pat Summitt and helped North Carolina drop mighty Tennessee out of the NCAA tournament.
She’s fearless. She’s fast. She’s feisty.
And, she is Final Four-bound.
The littlest Tar Heel, making every big play down the stretch, put top-seeded North Carolina in its first Final Four since winning the 1994 national championship with a 75-63 win over Tennessee in the Cleveland Regional on Tuesday night.
After complaining that their road to Boston was way too tough, the Tar Heels are packing their bags for another road trip.
“We’re the No. 1 team in the nation,” said Latta, “and tonight we showed it.”
The 5-foot-6 (with heels on, maybe) Latta finished with 20 points, nine assists and four steals in 40 minutes for the Tar Heels (33-1), who will play Maryland in this weekend’s Final Four.
The Terrapins were the only team to beat North Carolina, edging the Tar Heels by three points in overtime on Feb. 9.
Latta scored nine of her team’s final 11 points, drilling a crucial 3-pointer with 3:27 left and picking up the assist on the other basket as North Carolina finally put away the Lady Vols (31-5).
With the Tar Heels up 64-58 and the 30-second shot clock winding down, Latta stepped back and drilled her 3-pointer from the top of the key.
“Coach told me to get the ball and back it out,” Latta said. “They were just standing there. It was a dagger. I’m just glad I made it.”
On North Carolina’s next trip, Latta drove the lane and threaded a pass to Erlana Larkins for a layup to make it 69-60. After freshman Candace Parker’s basket, Latta then made six straight free throws in the final 56.1 seconds and the Tar Heels improved to just 2-12 all-time against Tennessee, which was seeking its 17th trip to the Final Four.
The Lady Vols trailed from the outset, fell behind by 16 points in the first half and got within five before running out of gas.
“You don’t win a basketball game in the first half, but you certainly can lose one,” said Summitt, Tennessee’s Hall of Fame coach. “We just dug too deep of a hole. We were just trying to get back into the game and they just answered everything. A lot of those plays were huge.”
Following the game, Latta introduced herself to Summitt.
“Hey, Ivory,” Summitt told the ACC’s player of the year. “You did a great job.”
Moments later, Latta was still reeling from their encounter.
“I just shook her hand and I’m still shaking,” she said. “That was pretty cool.”
Camille Little added 17 points and La’Tangela Atkinson had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Tar Heels, who lost to eventual NCAA champion Baylor in a regional final last year.
When the tournament pairings were announced, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell lamented her team’s plight. She didn’t like that her top-ranked team had to play its second-round game against Vanderbilt on the Commodores’ home floor or being stuck in the same bracket with the second-seeded Lady Vols.
She’s all smiles now.
“I knew Tennessee would come at us,” she said. “I knew they would make a run, but our kids are tough.”
None more than Latta.
With the ball in her hands counting down the final seconds, Latta slapped hands with Atkinson, screamed “Yeah” and pointed toward James, the Cavaliers’ superstar who was sitting in a luxury suite. The two first met at high school All-Star game in Cleveland a few years back.
“We flexed at each other,” Latta said. “I have the bigger arms. I was so glad he was here.”
Parker led the Lady Vols with 20 points and nine rebounds, but had eight turnovers against Carolina’s swarming defense. Sidney Spencer added 13 points and Shanna Zolman 11 for Tennessee, which will head home instead of to their fifth Final Four in a row.
“It seemed like every time we came at them they answered,” Parker said. “Every time we were almost over the hump they seemed to come back with a run or a steal or a 3. We just needed a better first half and that would have solved everything because in the second half we competed with them.”
North Carolina’s trapping defense harassed, disrupted and stripped Tennessee of any offensive flow in the first half. At times, the Lady Vols looked confused and Summitt’s face turned as orange as her blouse during a heated timeout.
“Yeah, I knew they were rattled,” Latta said. “They were yelling at each other. That’s how we play, and that’s how we’re going to keep playing.”
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