- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They are the Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider of the ACC: Ivory Latta, Lindsey Harding and Kristi Toliver.
Follow women's basketball and you're bound to develop a rooting interest in an unannounced competition that supersedes team allegiance. Maybe you are drawn to Harding's shut-down defense and off-the-dribble daring at Duke. Maybe it's Toliver, the overlooked clutch shooter and motor behind Maryland's attack.
Or maybe it's Latta, the volatile sharpshooter at the center of North Carolina's attack.
Like Mantle, Latta boasts an almost larger-than-life personality within the sport. She is both the triumvirate's biggest superstar and the one who seems to most crave the warmth of the spotlight.
Half an hour before Monday's game against Connecticut, having finished her pregame shooting, Latta bounced over to the half-full student section while her teammates jogged to the locker room. There she stood for several seconds, urging her peers to make some noise and soaking in their adoration.
On the court, Latta doesn't dribble the ball at the top of the key, waiting for the offense to uncoil, as she conducts it to and from the court like a drum major with a baton. After drawing a foul, she might stay on her back for an extra beat and flail her legs in jubilation like a turtle resting on its shell. Whether you buy it all as the unbridled expression of one player's joy at playing the game or roll your eyes at what might come across as forced histrionics, she is the outward face and visible soul of coach Sylvia Hatchell's team.
"We feed off her energy, but when it comes to the cameras, we let that go to Ivory," UNC junior LaToya Pringle laughed after the game. "You know, we're not very into the cameras and stuff like that."
So there was Latta, all alone at the top of the key after UConn's Ketia Swanier gambled and lost in going for a steal, in the spotlight as she hit the 3-pointer that gave North Carolina a three-point lead with 1 minute, 2 seconds to play against Connecticut. The Huskies wouldn't score again, and three free throws -- including a pair from Latta -- allowed the Tar Heels to hold on for an 82-76 win and a sweep of traditional powers Tennessee and Connecticut.
"Ivory wasn't having a really good game," Hatchell said. "But I told her, I said, 'Ivory, look, you just run our team. You're the best point guard in the country. If you're not shooting well, if things aren't going for you, you can make up for it in other areas.'
" I knew down the stretch that she would make big plays and help us. And that's what she did."
Only the final highlight is a little too convenient. The trademark shot an aberration in this instance. On this night, North Carolina beat Connecticut in spite of Latta, who suffered through 39 minutes (37 of which she was on the court for) to forget before the final 62 seconds of glory. She finished with 14 points but missed nine shots and recorded just one assist against eight turnovers.
Latta's late heroics aside, nothing had more to do with this win than the play of Erlana Larkins and Pringle. The backbone of North Carolina's offense in the post, the duo outmuscled, outjumped and flat-out beat Tina Charles, Brittany Hunter and Kaili McLaren down low all night.
Larkins scored 15 points and added a career-best 16 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. She was the one who answered right back when Connecticut finally seized the lead at 70-68, driving hard to the basket despite four fouls and scoring a tying layup. She was the one who grabbed a defensive rebound with just more than one minute to play after Connecticut's Kalana Greene -- who had a game-high 23 points -- finally missed a shot.
And on the decisive play on the ensuing possession, it was Larkins who recognized she didn't have a good look with the ball on the low block and made the pass, past Swanier's outstretched hands, to wide-open Latta at the top of the key.
"What a warrior," Hatchell said about Larkins. "She loves the big games; she gets up for the big games. And even though she was in some foul trouble and only played 25 minutes, she battled in there and is a warrior."
Pringle finished with a team-high 18 points and added six rebounds, three blocks and a couple of key plays of her own to put North Carolina in position for Latta's shot. With the score tied at 74 and just more than three minutes to play, Pringle came across the lane to block a Connecticut jumper, then found herself with an open layup on the other end off a pass from Larkins.
Aside from the foul trouble Pringle shared with Larkins, only the sweltering conditions in a packed Carmichael Auditorium did much to slow her.
"I felt it in warm-ups, you know, and throughout the day I was just really tired," Pringle said, adding she felt she could only play in short spurts of minutes. "I was having trouble breathing. I tried to use my asthma pump and drink Gatorade, and I started to cramp up. I wasn't really feeling that well during the game."
Long and lean, Pringle was one of many matchup nightmares for Connecticut -- and just about every team that faces the Tar Heels this season. Too quick and agile for big posts like McLaren or Hunter and too big for smaller forwards or wings like Charde Houston, she is an inside presence with the perfect frame for Hatchell's up-tempo style.
"That girl, I really don't have any words for her," Latta said. "She does a great job in the post there. That right there opened up the guard play, you know, getting her the ball and everybody concentrating on her."
Like her or dislike her, Latta is the lightning rod for any discussion of North Carolina's championship aspirations. Can the Tar Heels count on her to keep her cool and stay focused in the literal and figurative tight confines of postseason basketball? On the flip side, can any team stop a player who can shoot from anywhere on her side of the half-court line or beat most defenders off the dribble?
But on a night when Latta ended up in the spotlight once again, basking in the glow of warm words from her coach and the heartfelt cheers of a home crowd that thinks she'll always hit the next shot, the real story was how the Tar Heels overcame an awful performance from their star and 20 total first-half turnovers.
"It tells teams we're very balanced," Pringle said of beating a team like Connecticut on a night like Monday. "We have close to maybe six people averaging in double figures, people almost close to averaging 10 rebounds. I mean, you can stop one person, but then we'll have maybe four or five other people that can score or get the stop on defense."
You just have to look carefully; they're the ones behind Latta.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
17dBonnie D. Ford