Duke-UNC showdown will highlight PG battle

Updated: January 27, 2006, 6:19 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Tennessee had the talent to beat Duke Monday, but didn't deliver in part because the Lady Vols couldn't handle the Blue Devils' pressure defense.

Last season, that was North Carolina's key in its 3-0 sweep of Duke after losing 12 straight in the series. The Tar Heels are one of the quickest teams in the nation and, with Duke point guard Lindsey Harding suspended from the team in 2004-'05, the Blue Devils struggled to handle the pressure, averaging 19.3 turnovers per game in last season's series with the Tar Heels. In the teams' second meeting, UNC won at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time since 1997. And if the No. 1 Blue Devils need any more motivation when they host the second-ranked Tar Heels on Sunday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), UNC's win on Feb. 27, 2005, also snapped Duke's string of 33 straight ACC victories.

Duke and North Carolina are the last two unbeaten teams in college basketball, men's or women's. Their showdown should be one of the best games of the regular season and should be an extremely up-tempo contest.

But the key matchup of the game will be Harding -- who has quickly reestablished herself as one of the nation's best -- against UNC's Ivory Latta. They are two of the most dynamic point guards in the country, and whichever player dominates this one-on-one battle will probably lead her team to victory.

A look at how the two players match up:

GETTING TO THE POINT
Lindsey Harding, Duke, sr., 5-8
SEASON STATS
19 games, 26.2 mpg
PPG FG 3FG AST TO STL
11.4 55.5 58.6 4.2 1.7 2.2
Ivory Latta, UNC, jr., 5-6
SEASON STATS
18 games, 28.7 mpg
PPG FG 3FG AST TO STL
17.3 49.3 47.0 5.5 3.4 2.1
Point guard mentality: Pass first. Harding also tends to do her damage in a quiet way. Her calmness can really feed her teammates' confidence. Point guard mentality: Shoot first. She's also more showy, more verbal, emotional and active in how she handles her team.
I'm most impressed with her: Impeccable decision making. This season, Harding has 80 assists, but just 32 turnovers for a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. I'm most impressed with her: Relentlessness. Like a bowling ball, she powers right at you, over and over, and does not stop.
Other strengths include: She's the consummate leader and the total package; she can shoot, pass, play defense and, of course, make everyone on the court better. She rarely has problems bringing the ball up court, and if the offense breaks down, she has the ability to blow by people and get to the rim. Harding's also very good at coming off the screen for quick jumpers. Imagine how much better her numbers would be if she averaged 35 minutes. And though she doesn't shoot it often, she's hitting 58 percent from 3-point land (17-for-29 … and she had sunk just eight career treys prior to this season). Other strengths include: She has a well-deserved reputation for playing out of control at times, but has gotten better at playing within herself. That says a lot about her maturation and growth as a player. Latta's range is incredible (47 3-pointers) and she has the advantage over Harding in that category. And Latta's not only quick, but smart enough to use it to her advantage -- forcing her opponents to foul her. She gets to the charity stripe almost four times each game and has hit 59 of 68 (86.8 percent) free throws. Harding has a slightly higher percentage at 88.4 percent, but has attempted 25 fewer foul shots.
Lindsey is better than Ivory at: Setting up her teammates and playing a little more under control. Ivory is better than Lindsey at: Scoring whenever she wants. She also has better range.
Defensively, she: Is quick and uses her athleticism and foot speed, but really excels because of her tremendous understanding of angles and where to channel people. Whereas Latta just keeps coming at you, Harding changes up how she defends you. She's also a very smart defender, making 42 steals but committing only 20 fouls. Defensively, she: Is even quicker than Harding. And if her foot speed isn't enough, Latta's dogged intensity wears down her opponents. She just keeps coming right at you. And though she's smaller than a lot of her counterparts, Latta is deceptively strong and can dominate the opponent, almost overpowering her with her body.
Last season: Harding sat out for an unspecified violation of team rules. But oddly enough, the suspension appears to have evolved into a blessing in disguise and a tremendous period of maturation. Harding benefited greatly from sitting next to coach Gail Goestenkors on the bench, game after game. Harding absorbed everything and really began to see and understand the game like a coach and now is able to break down the game possession by possession, something great point guards must do. Last season: Latta has been on the national radar since her freshman season. But last year, particularly in the postseason, she truly ascended into the spotlight. Latta led UNC to its first undefeated home regular season since 1996-97, its first ACC tournament title in seven seasons, a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and a 3-0 sweep of rival Duke. Latta averaged 25.7 points -- including a career-high 32 in the semifinals -- over three ACC tournament games en route to MVP honors.
Best compliment you can give her: Monique Currie, a Kodak All-American and national player of the year candidate, is the most talented player for Duke. But Lindsey Harding is the MVP. Best compliment you can give her: People have questioned Latta's size, but like Temeka Johnson, Latta would easily be a first-round pick in this year's WNBA draft, if she was a senior.
In the ACC, she: Ranks first in free-throw percentage (.884) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.50), eighth in assists per game (4.2), 10th in steals (2.21) and 11th in field-goal percentage (.555). In the ACC, she: Ranks third in scoring (17.3), second in free-throw percentage (.868) and 3-pointers made (2.61), fourth in assists per game (5.5) and 3-point percentage (.470) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.62).
Why Duke might win: Against Tennessee, Harding proved she's big-time on a big stage. But she's even better in league play. Since ACC action started, Harding has averaged 14.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals, with double-figure points in all six conference games and 11 of 19 games. She combined for just 15 double-digit performances in her first two seasons. Plus, four other Blue Devils average at least 9.1 points. Duke also has the nation's top offense, averaging 90.8 points and almost 13 more rebounds than its opponents. Why UNC might win: It's not often that Duke faces a team that has quicker guards and posts -- but North Carolina fits the bill on both counts. And unlike Tennessee, UNC won't struggle versus the pressure defense. Tennessee's Shanna Zolman couldn't handle bringing the ball up the court against Duke, which kept the Lady Vols from establishing their offense. By the time she got past the midway point and tried to execute in the half court, Zolman was so tired that she just couldn't get into her shooting rhythm. But the Tar Heels prefer -- and excel at -- a fast-paced game.
Bottom line: Harding is a better rebounder and has a more defined defensive game than Latta. Duke, which has the best perimeter game in the nation with Currie and Harding, should have the advantage on its home court. It's UNC's job to steal it.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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