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Great Ball Of Fire

The folks of McConnells, S.C., have Ivory Latta pegged. In newsprint, North Carolina's 5'6" All-America guard is always "scrappy" or "speedy" or some other cartoonish modifier. But in McConnells (pop. 330), they've got a better word for her: country. As in, "She's as country as a turnip green." They use it to describe her off-the-court demeanor, but it works just as well for her game, a mix of small-town resourcefulness and guileless exuberance. Country. That's how they put it in the two-stop-sign town, where locals who have tracked her since middle school drop into the post office/town hall/fire station to pin news clippings and photos about Latta on the corkboard that hangs by the mail slot.

Latta has a slightly different way of putting it: "I'm McConnells in everything I do."

The hustle that earned her ACC Player of the Year honors and made her a national TV attraction was honed against all the guys from McConnells—not to mention nearby York and Rock Hill—who visited the asphalt court that Charles Latta built alongside his house for the youngest of his seven children. When Ivory was in high school, Charles added lights and mom Chenna made hot dogs and lemonade for everyone so the weekend games could go until 10 p.m. Since Latta's senior year at York Comprehensive, when she won both the boys' and girls' scoring titles, no one can drive to the Latta homecourt without passing signs that read: "Welcome to McConnells, Home of Ivory Latta."

Yeah, this town is 100% behind its tomboy homecoming queen. A caravan of chartered buses and cars makes the three-hour drive to Chapel Hill for big games. They cheer the headfirst dives that hurt a little less on pine than they do on asphalt, and continue to marvel at the midshin crossover that once rocked locals twice her size and age and now schools the women of the ACC.

From tip to buzzer, the Tarheels shove the pace with an intensity that's hard to match. Behind their reckless, wide-eyed leader, they average 79 possessions along with 87.8 points, tops in the country. "What team can run with Ivory for a full game and still defend four starters over 6'1"?" asks coach Sylvia Hatchell. So far, just Duke. Latta's leadership has fueled UNC's 24—1 start, the loss coming against the nation's No. 2-ranked defensive team.

Latta's internal metronome has always been set to breakneck. In grade school, the only way she could dunk on the Nerf hoop hooked to the top of her bedroom door was to launch herself from the bunk bed on the other side of the room. In the ninth grade, Latta bartered a good report card for a dirt bike. "She'd open up the throttle and find every hill she could," says Charles, a supervisor at Duke Energy. "When it broke, her mother and I decided it should stay broke."

That recklessness influences her fearless forays in the lane and from the arc (6.9 threes per game). It's a one-two punch she picked up watching tapes of Pete Maravich as a kid, a combo that has the best coaches in college basketball rethinking strategies. UConn's Geno Auriemma, who'd been dusted by Latta in two previous games, ran a fourguard lineup in their recent meeting. The move held Latta to 4-for-13 shooting and forced a seasonhigh eight turnovers. But when UConn erased UNC's 15-point lead, Latta flung a dagger from the top of the key with a minute left to ice the game. "She does so many impossible things that you think, Why can't I?" says forward Erlana Larkins.

Latta comes from a small town, but she's built for the big stage. She earned SportsCenter love last season, not so much for decking Tennessee with a three but for flexing at LeBron, who was in the stands, after the shot. At Storrs earlier last season, Latta hit an off-balance three that launched her onto the media table. "I can't believe I just made that," she told press row.

She brings out the performer in everyone, too. When a news crew came to campus last season, Latta coerced the camera-shy Larkins to do a twostep on the air. "I don't know how she got me to do that," Larkins says. A few weeks later, Latta convinced her rigid coach to join in the team's A-Town stomp after their Elite Eight win. "That's just the effect she has on people," Larkins says.

An effect that shows on the stat sheet. Latta's numbers are down (16.0 ppg vs. 18.4 last year), but three of her floormates are averaging double figures. Of course, this team is not going anywhere without her. When Latta tore up her knee in last season's Final Four game against Maryland, everyone knew UNC's title hopes were shredded with it. In a rematch win this January, Latta dropped a season-high 32. And that loss to Duke came on a night when Latta had a meltdown, shooting 0-for-11 from the arc. "That won't happen again," she says.

In case she needs an added incentive: The ACC champ will likely play the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tourney in Raleigh and the regionals in Greensboro, which means UNC could get to the Final Four without leaving North Carolina. That would suit Latta just fine. "The closer I am to McConnells," she says, "the happier I am."

Not that she's ever too far away.