Complementary players are key to UNC's success
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Coaches in the ACC, and the rest of the country for that matter, probably aren't too keen on the idea of giving Ivory Latta another season in college basketball. But the idea of a new season is exactly what Latta and the North Carolina Tar Heels are employing as they move on to the final of the ACC tournament following a 78-72 escape against Maryland on Saturday afternoon.
After dropping three of their final six games during the regular season following a 24-0 start, the Tar Heels are interested in showing the outside world, if not themselves, that those wins and losses don't mean much once the postseason starts.
"I think it's more so about proving things to everybody else," forward Erlana Larkins said of the Tar Heels objectives in Greensboro. "Although we're a good team, we had two losses to Duke and an unfortunate loss to NC State, so sometimes people think we can't close the big one. We're just here to show them that the ACC tournament is a new season. Hopefully we'll finish the job."
If they do, it won't come at the expense of Duke, which bowed out of the tournament with a stunning 70-65 loss against NC State in the day's first semifinal. But as Larkins alluded to, the Tat Heels will still get a chance to avenge an earlier loss. After falling from the ranks of the unbeaten against Duke on Feb. 8, North Carolina dropped a 72-65 decision against NC State eight days later.
"I've been coaching 32 years; I don't know if I've ever seen a team play as close to a perfect first half as they did," Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said of the Wolfpack jumping to a 19-point halftime lead in Raleigh.
For all the talk of a new season, North Carolina still looks a lot like the same team that dropped that game against NC State. Of course, it also looks a lot like the team that beat Tennessee and Maryland.
The Tar Heels still push the ball at breakneck speed and attack the glass as well as anyone. The damage done in a 90-60 rout of Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals was to be expected, but Hatchell's team was equally authoritative in outrebounding Maryland by four and outshooting the Terps by four field-goal attempts.
Maryland is stylistically similar to North Carolina; Hatchell's team has simply been better at it so far this season.
After her team's win against the Blue Devils, NC State coach Kay Yow singled out Latta -- who struggled from the field in both Duke losses and shot just 5-of-21 against the Wolfpack -- for praise in stepping up now that the regular season is over.
"I mean, it seems like Latta [against Virginia Tech] was back on her game at full speed," Yow said. "We know the big three for Carolina, and then the others are very complementary."
Latta has looked more aggressive at times in Greensboro, driving through traffic and creating havoc instead of settling for the perimeter shot (although she's also 8-of-13 from behind the arc through the first two games). But another difference for North Carolina, and what might set the Tar Heels apart in the NCAA Tournament, are those complementary players who support the big three of Latta, Larkins and Camille Little.
So while Latta led the way against Maryland with 19 points, she was also one of five North Carolina players in double figures, joining Larkins, Little, LaToya Pringle and Jessica Breland.
"I think that we've been getting a lot of production from other people besides starters," Pringle said. "People off the bench, they're coming in -- I think Jessica [Breland] scored in double figures today, Iman [McFarland] got a key basket and Alex [Miller] was running the show."
Breland played just 16 total minutes in the two losses against Duke and wasn't much of a factor in games against Tennessee, Connecticut and Maryland. Adding her to a regular rotation that already includes a host of long, athletic posts and wings makes the Tar Heels that much more capable of maintaining their frenetic pace and that much more difficult to match up against.
"She's meant a lot," Pringle said. "She's given us a spark off the bench. And I feel like right now she's coming into her own, playing hard and learning that you don't have to be robotic and play in a system. And I feel like this tournament, she's really showing people what she can do."
Against Maryland, North Carolina jumped to a 37-30 halftime lead thanks in part to a big first half from Larkins. And while she came up big down the stretch with some key rebounds, the Terrapins did a good job of throwing enough bodies at her in the second half to slow her down.
"To be honest with you, it really wears you down," Larkins said with a smile. "I'm a big woman, but three women coming at you for an entire 40 minutes, it kind of wears you down."
Without Breland's points off the bench, Pringle's clutch offense or Little's steady hand, the Terrapins' late rally might have sunk UNC.
"We just have a lot of versatile players," Little said after the team's quarterfinal win, where other players similarly shined with Larkins in foul trouble. "Erlana is a big factor, but when she gets in foul trouble, I think all of us realize that we have to pick up the slack and just try to take her presence on the floor."
Against an NC State team that controlled the paint against Duke in the semifinals and plays with as much energy as any team in the country, the Tar Heels will once again have to show off their depth.
As good as Latta is, and as much as her teammates might feed off her energy, she's not what distinguishes North Carolina from championship long shots like Chrissy Givens at Middle Tennessee State, Armintie Price at Mississippi or Jessica Dickson at South Florida.
What separates the Tar Heels as they seek an ACC tournament title on the road to greater postseason glory is a collection of complementary players that might yet prove itself second to none.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.