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Confidence abounds for UNC sophomore

To the naked eye, she's a tiny mouse scurrying here, there, and in between -- wreaking havoc, dodging heavy feet and teasing traps.

Truth be told, she's a serendipitous giant -- one who portrays the fearlessness of David and the confidence of Ali. She's smiling, dicing, ripping, gripping and taunting. Like a star on Broadway, she has a hunger to perform for only the serious theatergoers.

Her name? Ivory Latta. Her passion? To carry the Carolina Blue and Tar Heel faithful to places unseen since 1994.

Listed at a generous 5 feet, 6 inches -- she's lucky if she can stretch to 5-4 -- Latta is the kind of player who makes you want to watch basketball. She has that special Taurasi-esque confidence, a rarity among most, and Latta has all the skills and tools to back it up.

You know what I'm talking about. You've seen the big eyes, the undying smile and the demonized focus. You've seen the head-shaking crossovers and heard the oohs and ahhs. You've witnessed the back-breaking triples, the fearless attack in the red zone and the jaw dropping no-look passes. Shame on you if you haven't.

So where in the world does this point guard's abundant confidence come from?

Her dad put the ball in her hands when she was a 4-year-old, then nudged her along like proud parents do. For somebody such as Latta, that piece of leather invariably became a part of her, like the ring you receive on your wedding day. It never leaves your sight, your touch or your thoughts, and it provides you with safety when nothing else does. You grow to love it and all that it stands for, as it only becomes more potent over time.

As Latta said, "My confidence and attitude come directly from my love of the game. I eat, sleep and drink basketball."

Latta's passion is a good fit at North Carolina, where coach Sylvia Hatchell allows you to be you on the court. Though Latta is a drastically improved decision maker compared to last year's freshman season, which has resulted in a more offensively composed Carolina club, she still makes the occasional mistake. That's where Hatchell becomes critical.

While she understands the self-induced pressure Latta experiences, Hatchell also understands that she has an extraordinary talent guiding her team. So she respects that talent and treats it with a certain level of nobility, insofar that it may continue to grow.

"I don't ever tell Ivory she's wrong, we discuss it," Hatchell said. "I say, 'Let's look at this again from another angle,' or 'Was this a good decision?'

"Ivory has tremendous confidence that spreads to her teammates, and I want to keep that. So we talk about the game and she learns."

Super summer camp
Attending Dena Evans' Point Guard College this past summer in Lynchburg, Va., was another recent confidence booster for Latta. Male or female, eager playmakers from various backgrounds come together to learn the ins and outs of the most important position on the floor. For Latta, the most memorable lesson is what she explained as "shaping the gym." As the point guard, you must make sure that everybody on the floor is on the same page at all times. If they're not, it's your job to fix it.

That's where Latta has become the quintessential leader. She's not afraid to bark instructions or realign her team when it becomes askew. With the help of senior Leah Metcalf -- whom the humble Latta credits for making her a better leader -- the Tar Heels have the glue in place for a big-time NCAA Tournament showing.

Hatchell has noticed a marked difference in Latta's decision making since the camp.

"Last season, Ivory would drive all the time and look to score," Hatchell said. "Now she's looking to find her teammates first. After a game, the first thing she wants to know is how many assists she had."

There's another part of the box score, however, that doesn't seem to faze Latta. She could miss six shots, but always come back to make the seventh as her innate abilities and immeasurable confidence allow her to approach the game with a complete lack of regard for failure.

"One of the best things about Ivory," Hatchell said, "is that if she misses a shot or makes a mistake, she never loses confidence because she knows she'll always make the next play."

Still, the sophomore sets a very high standard for herself. She wants nothing more than to help her team and please her coach. Over time, however, she has learned that there are just some things you can't control. When a mistake happens, you learn from it fast, move on to the next play faster and rely upon your confidence to make the next play. You make sure to compensate in other areas of the game to help your team. Being the all-round player always brings you back to greatness, because you continue to help those around you find ways to win.

A fan favorite
So much charisma inevitably brings fame. And Latta, a 20-year-old role model, is often a favorite to youngsters. They love her skills, but also appreciate that she's not much taller than they are. You might call her an 'advisor' of sorts to the youngsters and their parents, who want to know how they can get what she has at such a size disadvantage.

Disadvantage? Latta sees it from another perspective.

"My advantage is my quickness," she said. "And my ability to make good decisions."

She's so quick, in fact, that she often leaves opponents in a cloud of dirt after executing her favorite crossover maneuver or streak to the hoop. She actually gets more compliments from opponents during competition than she does trash talk (smart move on their part, since taunting words only make Latta's game that much better).

But she does have some advice for those diminutive youngsters: Let your heart guide you and carry confidence always.

The sky is indeed the limit, especially for a UNC squad that has more cohesiveness than it has had in a long time. Latta sets the tone for the risky Tar Heel defense and creates blistering offensive tempo in the open court. But Latta, who's versatile and dedicated yet highly unsatisfied, also knows that every aspect of the game can be improved.

Watch Latta play and you'll be hooked. I was. She's a wonderful star in the making. She's unpretentious and loves her work. She's small and sweet, but also feisty and wicked on the court. And if one thing's for sure, special things are in store for North Carolina's women's basketball because of her.

ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's college basketball coverage.