ACC three-peat comes into focus for Tar Heels
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Greatness rarely travels unaccompanied.
Glance at almost any painting or photo of a memorable moment and you're likely to see a crowd. Generals survey a battlefield surrounded by a cadre of dozens, and singers stand in a spotlight created by the legion of support staff hidden in the wings and rafters.
As perhaps depicted best through the brilliance of careful editing in "Forrest Gump," there is always someone with a story of his or her own lurking in the blurred background.
They were there Sunday, even as Ivory Latta gave NC State's Ashley Key a quick shake, freezing the defender for the split second the North Carolina star needed to spin to the basket and extend her team's lead to an ultimately insurmountable five points in the final minute of the ACC title game.
Latta was the star in the center of every camera lens at the end of North Carolina's 60-54 victory, basking in a repeat performance as ACC tournament MVP and quieting the talk of her late-season shooting funk.
"I think she is," teammate LaToya Pringle said when asked whether Latta is playing her best basketball of the season. "I mean, she had a little slump where her shot wasn't falling, and I think she really got down on herself. But you can tell she's back -- she's hitting 3s everywhere.
"I think this is the best basketball she's played. She's driving it, being aggressive to the hole, which she did more last year before her knee injury. She's getting her confidence back about her knee and playing hard."
But as much as the story of the ACC tournament seemed to be captured in the snapshot moment of Latta slipping by her defender, or Erlana Larkins bulling her way to the basket, there were other stories in the fringes of the frame.
Without them, you really don't have the whole picture.
For the first 10 minutes of Sunday's final, it looked as though NC State's improbable run would continue. Despite having squared off in a physical game against Duke just 24 hours earlier, the Wolfpack came out with the fresher legs against North Carolina, beating the Tar Heels on penetration just as they beat the Blue Devils.
Down 20-9, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell called a timeout and implored her players to pick up their intensity. Latta responded first, as stars are wont to do, rattling off seven unanswered points to bring the Tar Heels within four. But when she picked up her third foul with just more than five minutes to go, the Tar Heels suddenly were back down by seven and facing the remainder of the first half without their top player.
Which is where Rashanda McCants comes into focus.
Over the next five minutes -- including two minutes in a makeshift lineup that didn't include any of the big three of Latta, Larkins and Camille Little -- McCants scored a pair of key field goals and helped North Carolina's defense force six turnovers. The Tar Heels not only survived Latta's foul trouble but seized momentum and took control on the defensive end. NC State wasn't about to give up, tying the score in the closing minutes after surrendering its lead early in the second half, but the tide had turned.
"I was just trying to think about all the things I could do to help the team get the momentum to help us pull away in the first half," McCants said. "We didn't have that intensity that we usually do, so I just thought maybe I should get fired up and score. They gave me the lane, so I just took what they gave me."
McCants and Pringle are North Carolina's "other" starters, relegated even by their own coach to second fiddle, albeit benignly, when she singled out Latta, Larkins and Little as the keys to victory in the postgame news conference.
As a freshman known best for being the sister of former UNC men's star Rashad McCants last season, Rashanda played regular minutes off the bench but struggled in shooting 38 percent from the floor (although she was one of just four regulars to finish with more assists than turnovers). With a year of experience, she's more comfortable this season filling a support role as a full-time starter.
"This year, I'm just doing what I have to do to help the team get that intensity and get everyone involved," McCants said. "I think my biggest role is to do the small things which can make a big difference. I think my confidence is better, because I'm able to take more shots and make mistakes and recover from them."
She's also a force on the defensive end, something she has in common with Pringle. McCants ranks second on the team in steals and third in blocks, the latter a category Pringle dominates with 104 on the season.
And it's defense, more than anything else, that the Tar Heels used to set the stage for Latta's eventual heroics, harassing the Wolfpack into uncharacteristic mistakes on the way to forcing 20 turnovers and doubling NC State in points off turnovers.
"I think we're in-your-face," Pringle said of the team's defensive philosophy. "We try to force people to make turnovers rather than, you know, that you get one shot and we get the rebound. We like to force turnovers. I think a lot of teams don't do that; they back off and let you pass it around, and we don't do that."
The Heels don't even back off after a third straight ACC tournament championship.
The mood in the North Carolina locker room after the game was celebratory but subdued, more like happy hour at the end of a long work week than a party worthy of the balloons and confetti that dropped from the rafters in the moments after the final buzzer in Greensboro.
"We're happy, but we are not bouncing off the walls or anything like that," Hatchell said. "We are very happy with winning this game, but you know, we want more than this."
There is unfinished business as the Tar Heels move on with what's certain to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And as much as Latta's resurgence in Greensboro bodes well for the team's NCAA fortunes, the whole picture is of a more complete team than the one that lost to Maryland in Boston at last season's Final Four.
"I think we trust each other," McCants said. "We know that if someone makes a mistake, in their head they're so competitive that they're going to go back and fix what they did wrong. And I think that's the greatest part about the team is that we're able to depend on someone to step up when they need to."
Even if that person spends most of her time in the blurry part of the frame.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.