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UNC ready to rock and roll
As the ACC's lone representative, the Tar Heels have plenty of confidence.
By GREG AUMAN
Published March 31, 2007
CLEVELAND - A year ago, when top-seeded North Carolina beat Tennessee in Cleveland to advance to the Final Four, coach Sylvia Hatchell had already started motivating her team about a return trip to Ohio.
The front of the Carolina blue T-shirts she gave her players said it all: Rockin', Rollin' and Reboundin' in Cleveland. The color may have faded over the past year, but the Tar Heels' desire to get back to the same arena hasn't.
"That's a shirt I've been wearing all year," said Hatchell, preparing for another showdown with Tennessee 32-3 in Sunday's semifinal. "That was something that sort of motivated us to get back to Cleveland. Last year, we had a great experience there."
Tennessee would just as soon end the parallels there. The Vols missed out on their regularly scheduled appearance at the Final Four - this year's trip is the 17th for coach Pat Summitt. Last year was only UNC's second Final Four. The Tar Heels won the national title in 1994.
There's more than location and the shirts to remind UNC of last year's run, which ended with a loss to Maryland in the championship game.
The Tar Heels' top three scorers - guards Ivory Latta and Camille Little and center Erlana Larkins - are the same. And UNC (34-3) has shined in the shadows of its ACC rivals, with two of its losses coming to another No. 1 seed, Duke. Latta, who averages a team-best 16.3 points and is the team's top 3-point threat, said UNC's focus never shifted from making its way back to Cleveland.
"We worked extremely hard and I definitely have sacrificed a lot to make sure my team gets back there," said Latta, who made a quick recovery from a knee injury in the Maryland game. "Before the season I told them 'whatever it takes' to get us back to that Final Four, and I really laid my body out there on the line for them."
Last year, the ACC dominated, having three of the four teams in the women's Final Four. This time, UNC is alone, and the league has no men's teams still playing.
"It's sort of unusual," Hatchell said. "With the other teams in our conference, men and women, you would have thought maybe some other ones would have been here."
It's rare that any college can go into a Final Four meeting against Tennessee with the confidence that UNC has. The Tar Heels earned a 70-57 win at Chapel Hill in December, and going back to last year's meeting, the Vols are 0-2 against UNC and 32-2 against the rest of college basketball.
"I don't think anyone handles Tennessee easily," Hatchell said when asked about two double-digit wins against her next opponent. "We both have great athletes, play good defense and go up and down the floor. When we play them, it's just a great game, and I'm hoping we can have that kind of game on Sunday."
Hatchell and Summitt are longtime friends - Hatchell got her start as the junior varsity coach at Tennessee, and they are only two months apart in age. Summitt hopes her team is playing better basketball this time, nearly four months after their most recent meeting.
"It remains to be seen how much we have improved," Summitt said. "But I do think the schedule we've played and having played North Carolina earlier in the season, I'm glad that we've at least had a game so we understand just how good they are."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.