January 29, 2006

(3) North Carolina 74, (2) Duke 70

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Now the fun starts for North Carolina, the last remaining unbeaten team in Division I.

"We know that we can't let down in any way, shape or form," coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "You've got that big zero on you."

Not to mention No. 1.

Erlana Larkins had 17 of her season-high 23 points in the second half, Ivory Latta added 17 points and a steadying influence down the stretch and the third-ranked Tar Heels rallied to beat No. 2 Duke 74-70 Sunday night.

Since the Blue Devils knocked off No. 1 Tennessee earlier in the week -- and the Lady Vols lost again a few days later -- the winner in the renewal of this Tobacco Road rivalry was all but assured of moving to the top spot when The Associated Press poll is released Monday.

"I've been doing it 31 years, this is nice," said Hatchell, who led the Tar Heels to the NCAA championship in 1994. "I'd like to have it the last game of the season. It happened to me one time before, and there's nothing sweeter than that."

It would be the first time North Carolina has been No. 1, and denying Duke (20-1, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) the same honor likely will feel just as good. The Tar Heels (20-0, 7-0) continued the best start in school history with their fourth straight victory over the Blue Devils.

The rematch comes Feb. 25.

"This was by far the most physical game, and you can't just turn it on in one game," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "You have to prepare for that, I think, every single day in practice. I know that we will be better because of this game."

Camille Little scored 14 points for North Carolina, while teammate La'Tangela Atkinson tied a career high with 15 rebounds and added two clinching free throws in the waning seconds. Mistie Williams led the Blue Devils with 16 points, and Monique Currie finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

The Tar Heels had to work for this one. Duke led 40-27 at halftime and still was ahead by 12 midway through the second half. But most of that came with Larkins on the bench in foul trouble, and when she returned, the game changed.

"We were expecting them to come back," Currie said. "They're a really good team, so I wasn't surprised."

Larkins had nine points in the first 4 minutes following the break, then helped North Carolina come back from that double-digit deficit.

After Little had consecutive layups, Larkins worked inside for two of her own to make it 58-54 as the Blue Devils suddenly went cold. Abby Waner momentarily stopped the drought with a jumper, but Larkins helped free Atkinson with a screen on the ensuing possession to keep the lead at four.

"We just came out and played with the intensity we didn't have in the first half," Larkins said. "We got out in the passing lanes and got on our players, and our help defense was good."

The Tar Heels tied it for the first time since midway through the first half on a putback by reserve LaToya Pringle, and it was 64-64 when Larkins was fouled with 3:11 remaining. She calmly converted both shots at the line, and Alex Miller drove for two more points.

"We stayed tight with each other, we tried to be confident and positive," Little said. "We just stuck together, and we knew we had to keep playing hard. We knew that we could come back and win the game."

Atkinson scored again off an assist from Larkins to make it 72-69 with 22 seconds on the clock, and when Williams made the first of two free throws, the margin was two. She intentionally missed the next one, but Atkinson was there to corral the miss and was fouled.

"I had a talk with coach Hatchell before the game, and basically she told me to rebound and play defense," Atkinson said. "I was just focused on that on the ride over and stayed focused throughout the game."

As she headed to the line, Latta began strutting a bit, clearly proud of the effort she and her teammates showed in bouncing back. Atkinson swished both free throws, and Currie missed a desperation 3 just before the buzzer.

"I'm just happy it ended like that," Latta said with a smile.

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