Pringle, Larkins lead UNC to top of ACC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Here's the scene in the last minute of regulation Saturday. Erlana Larkins is wearing practically an oven mitt. (OK, the protective wrap on her broken left hand is not that bad, but still ) LaToya Pringle is wearing jersey No. 55 because her regular No. 30 had blood on it from her split lip.

North Carolina is down three points against Maryland, with seniors Larkins and Pringle facing the possibility of something they have never experienced as Tar Heels.

"I just don't know how the team would have reacted," Pringle said later, "if we lost two games in a row."

Thanks in large part to Pringle and Larkins, that didn't happen. The No. 4 Tar Heels prevailed 97-86 in double overtime against the No. 3 Terrapins, putting Carolina alone in first place in the ACC. These teams meet only once in the regular season. It would be no surprise to see them face off again in the ACC tournament, though.

"I think this victory was so big," said Pringle, who had a career-high 31 points. "It kind of got our confidence back that we are one of the best teams in the country and we can compete against the best."

Pringle shivered as she said this while she stood in the hallway at Carmichael Auditorium after the game. A stairwell door had been left open, sending a breeze through. Figuratively, the Terrapins also had let the door stay open for the Tar Heels -- and that cost Maryland its second loss this season.

The Terps had led by as many as seven points in the second half, but Carolina was able to force overtime. Larkins passed to Pringle for what turned into a tying three-point play with 46.5 seconds left in regulation.

After Jessica Breland blocked Marissa Coleman's shot at the other end, Carolina had a chance to win. Rashanda McCants missed a perimeter shot, then Pringle saw her follow shot rim out.

However the Tar Heels had made it to overtime. And at the end of the first stanza, they once again were able to make a big play. With Maryland up 79-77, the Terps' Kristi Toliver lost the ball, UNC's Cetera DeGraffenreid scrambled for it and was able to toss it to McCants for a layup. Toliver missed at the other end, and it was on to a second overtime.

Pringle really took over then, scoring 12 of her points. Pringle also had nine rebounds in the game.

"She seemed to do everything right," said Larkins, who did plenty right herself with 25 points, 18 rebounds and four assists. "She was always in the right place at the right time, either getting a pass or a putback."

Carmichael will be refurbished after this season, so the Carolina women will play all their 2008-09 home games in the Smith Center. The upgrade is very needed for the old building but the Tar Heels will miss being in this gym until they return.

The nearly 8,000 on hand Saturday afternoon made it the kind of atmosphere that helps teams play their best. With an edge, of course, for the home team.

The energy and adrenaline in Carmichael radiated throughout the place. And unlike Monday night in Storrs, Conn., the noise was pro-Heels this time. Save for the section of red and black behind the Maryland bench, most in the crowd were in Tar Heel blue -- and in full voice.

The fan factor worked against UNC in its 82-71 loss at UConn. But the truth is, the Tar Heels also worked against themselves that night. The Huskies made adjustments at halftime and captured the momentum in that matchup, validating their No. 1 ranking. But Carolina forced shots, committed bad turnovers and didn't get the ball to Larkins enough.

Pringle acknowledged that the Tar Heels were frustrated with how they played in the second half at UConn and wanted to do something about it.

"We came into practice with a different mentality," she said. "We took it upon ourselves, especially me and Erlana, to be harder on our team. We didn't play smart at the end, and that's always been a problem for us.

"So we didn't let things 'go' in practice. We pushed our team. If we had to get things straight, we got them straight."

Guard Alex Miller has been out since November with a knee injury, so the Tar Heels have relied even more on their posts for senior leadership.

Florida native Larkins, who has a very sharp basketball mind and a force of personality, has always been a leader for this team. But that's a new role for Pringle, a 6-foot-3 forward/center out of Fayetteville, N.C.

"If you are going to talk a game, you're going to have to back it up," Pringle said. "Erlana and I did that. In practice, we could have subbed out, but we didn't. We wanted to be the leaders for the team, especially after the Connecticut game. We were so upset that we let that get away.

"I don't think I'm that comfortable being vocal. But after the Connecticut loss, I kind of embraced it. I don't know what got into me."

Pringle laughed as she said that, enjoying the moment -- even if she might not have enjoyed dinner as much as she normally would after such a victory.

"I have to go see the doctor to see if I need stitches," she said. "Because [her lip] actually got rebusted at the end. It caused it to bleed again but I wiped it away and tried to hide it."

She successfully avoided having to go change into a third jersey. And the Tar Heels avoided getting back-to-back losses, a blemish that hasn't marred the program since 2004, when Carolina lost the ACC tournament final to Duke, then was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Middle Tennessee.

That was the season before Larkins and Pringle arrived. What those two have experienced the past three years is losing in the NCAA Tournament to the eventual NCAA champion. That was in the Elite Eight to Baylor in 2005 and twice in the national semifinals, to Maryland in 2006 and to Tennessee last year.

These Tar Heels lost Ivory Latta and Camille Little, both WNBA draft picks, to graduation, then Miller to her injury.

So they've needed Larkins to play through her injury (suffered at the end of December); for McCants, Pringle, Breland and Heather Claytor to increase their offensive production from a year ago (which they have); and for rookie guards DeGraffenreid, Italee Lucas and Rebecca Gray to learn and grow quickly.

Saturday, they all did their parts. McCants wasn't far from a triple-double, with 14 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Breland had eight points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots. The three freshmen accounted for three of the Tar Heels' four 3-pointers.

Coach Sylvia Hatchell was happy with her whole team but was especially proud of Larkins and Pringle.

"They are our warriors," Hatchell said. "I was just telling [my team], 'Go to 'em, go to 'em, go to 'em.'"

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.