March 05, 2006

(1) North Carolina 91, (4) Maryland 80

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- With another conference championship in hand, top-ranked North Carolina can finally start thinking about making a run at the national championship.

Erlana Larkins had a career-high 26 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Tar Heels past fourth-ranked Maryland 91-80, giving the program its second straight Atlantic Coast Conference title and likely locking up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.

Ivory Latta also scored 26 to earn MVP honors for the second straight year for North Carolina (29-1), which ranks second in ACC history with seven tournament titles.

The win allowed the Tar Heels to avenge their only loss, a 98-95 overtime home defeat last month to the Terrapins (28-4). But more importantly, it allowed coach Sylvia Hatchell to use her gold scissors again, the same ones the Tar Heels used to cut down the NCAA championship nets in 1994.

The scissors apparently weren't used again until North Carolina beat Duke last season to win its first tourney title in seven years.

"I was happy to be able to use those gold scissors because they have a lot of special memories," Hatchell said, "and we would like to use them again."

It was one of the most memorable seasons in Hatchell's 20-year tenure in Chapel Hill. This season, the Tar Heels' athleticism, depth and trapping up-tempo style have kept them atop a league ranked No. 1 in RPI.

"I've got great kids, they're playing their hearts out for each other and for me," Hatchell said. "We're healthy, we're an exciting team, we've got great chemistry. This is the kind of team a coach dreams of because these young ladies are like my daughters."

It was a disappointing end to the tournament for the Terrapins, who have won a league-best eight titles but none since 1989. They advanced by beating second-ranked Duke in Saturday's semifinals to end a 14-game losing streak in the series, which might have put them in position for a top seed.

Jade Perry scored 18 points to lead five players in double figures, while Ashleigh Newman scored all 14 of her points in the second half. Marissa Coleman, the ACC's rookie of the year, also scored 14.

"They played like warriors," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said of Perry and Newman. "They played like champions. That's why this team is so dangerous when you see the players and the rotation. ... That's what you have to have to be a championship team."

Maryland certainly had reason to be confident after winning last month's thriller against the Tar Heels. In that game, the Terrapins rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit and forced the extra period on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Newman.

This time, North Carolina led nearly the entire way and didn't let up.

"Remembering that we lost to Maryland before was pressure on us," said Camille Little, who scored 11 of her 13 points in the second half after early foul trouble. "We felt like we had something that we had to do because we didn't want to lose at home this year."

The Tar Heels led by seven at halftime and increased that margin to as many as 13 points. Maryland got as close as three points late, but Larkins and Latta kept the Tar Heels from repeating that first collapse.

The 6-foot-1 Larkins, a first-team all-ACC pick, went 9-for-14 from the field and 8-for-10 from the line. Latta, a 5-6 point guard and ACC player of the year, also had four assists to go with five steals.

They even worked together in celebration, with Latta giving the ball to Larkins to dribble out the clock before the sophomore threw the ball skyward at the horn.

Behind Larkins, North Carolina controlled the inside with 58 points in the paint, including all 32 second-half points from the field. They also took a 48-37 rebounding advantage with 20 on the offensive boards -- an area of such emphasis that Hatchell promised to give her players T-shirts reading "WWR: Wild Women Rebounders" if they outrebounded the Terps.

After building a 42-35 lead at the break, North Carolina kept the pressure on by forcing the ball inside throughout the second half.

"Coach always tells us to get them off balance," Latta said. "See your driving hole, and if they come, dish it off to your teammate."

Maryland came within 79-76 on a layup by Newman with 5:19 left. But Larkins answered with a pair of free throws, followed by one of several runners in the lane from Latta. Then, Larkins grabbed a Latta miss and put it in for an 85-78 lead with 3:26 left to end Maryland's final flurry.

No comments: