Latta carries Tar Heels through brutal region

Associated Press
Published March 29, 2006

CLEVELAND - 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 smallest littlest Tar Heel, making every big play down the stretch, put top seed North Carolina in its first Final Four since 1994 - when UNC won its only national championship - with a 75-63 win over Tennessee in the Cleveland Region final 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," Latta said, "and tonight we showed it."

The 5-foot-6 (with heels on, maybe) Latta had 20 points, nine assists and four steals in 40 minutes for the Tar Heels (33-1), who face Maryland on Sunday in the Final Four.

The Terrapins were the only team to beat UNC, edging the Tar Heels by three points in overtime on Feb. 9.

Latta scored nine of her team's final 11 points, drilling a 3-pointer with 3:27 left and picking up the assist on the other basket as North Carolina finally put away the 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.

On North Carolina's next trip, Latta drove the lane and threaded a pass lane to Erlana Larkins for a layup to make it 69-60. After freshman Candace Parker's basket, Latta made six straight free throws in the final 56.1 seconds and the Tar Heels improved to 2-12 all-time against Tennessee, which sought its 17th trip to the Final Four.

The Vols trailed from the outset, fell behind by 16 in the first half, then 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."

After the game, Latta introduced herself to Summitt. Moments later, Latta was still reeling.

"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.

When the bracket was announced, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell lamented her team's plight. She didn't like having to play its second-round game against Vanderbilt on the Commodores' home floor, or being in the same bracket with the No. 2 seed Vols. And UNC was also in the same region as Rutgers, which was undefeated in the Big East during the regular season.

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.

In the final seconds Latta pointed toward James, the Cavaliers' superstar who was sitting in a luxury suite. The two met at high school All-Star game in Cleveland a few years ago.

Parker led the Vols with 20 points and nine rebounds, but had eight turnovers. Clearwater High graduate Dominique Redding played one minute for Tennessee.