- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For a game in early December, Sunday night's showdown between No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Tennessee had a little of everything.
Ivory Latta and Candace Parker were there. Butch Davis, the new football coach for the Tar Heels, sat in as a guest coach for Sylvia Hatchell in the first half. And former Lady Vols star Tamika Catchings was in the house. Even Anson Dorrance, hours after leading the North Carolina women's soccer team to its 18th national championship, stopped by to see old friend Pat Summitt and soak in the adoration of the rowdy full house at Carmichael Auditorium.
It's just too bad the point guards went missing for long stretches of a game that was both a potential championship preview and a clinic in how not to execute on offense.
A game with postseason intensity and energy Tennessee fans even showed the full measure of devotion, throwing back a free T-shirt that landed in the small contingent of orange behind the team's bench during a timeout was plagued by a healthy dose of early-season execution, including 31 turnovers and 22 personal fouls in the first half alone.
North Carolina ultimately remained unbeaten while Tennessee suffered its first loss, mostly because the Tar Heels showed more muscle on the boards and more speed in transition than the Lady Vols en route to a 70-57 win that was more competitive than the double-digit spread might indicate.
"We bring out the best and the worst in each other, I guess," North Carolina coach Hatchell said, adding that she still hoped Sunday's matchup was a preview of the national championship game.
And to that end, the aesthetic shortcomings of the game shouldn't diminish either the Tar Heels or Lady Vols as championship contenders. In fact, the defensive intensity and sheer athleticism on display bode well for the prospect of both teams getting back to Cleveland, site of this season's Final Four and of last season's regional final between the teams that sent North Carolina to the national semifinals.
Both teams just need a little polish.
For Tennessee, Parker put up All-American numbers with 27 points and 10 rebounds on 56 percent shooting, but even getting her the ball was a chore on a night when the offense repeatedly broke down. Tennessee shot just 36 percent while committing 24 turnovers. It was so bad that the offensive boards, so often a source of redemption on bad shooting nights for Summitt's teams, were a negative, with the Lady Vols giving up five more offensive boards than they collected.
"Well, obviously we really struggled to put the ball in the hole," Tennessee coach Summitt said. "I think North Carolina had a lot to do with it, just their pressure and we rushed a little bit. We did not feel as comfortable and in sync offensively, but I think they had a lot to do with it, just the physicality of their team. We needed to be able to score with a little more balance."
Tennessee essentially returned four starters with Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike and Sidney Spencer, but point guard is mostly the domain of newcomers Shannon Bobbitt and Cait McMahan. Experience has proven that the dynamic Hornbuckle is at her best when not burdened with bringing the ball up the floor and setting the offense in motion, but neither Bobbitt nor McMahan proved up to the challenge against the Tar Heels.
"Sporadic at times," Summitt said of her point guards. "Again, for Shannon and for Cait, it's a little bit of new territory for both of them. I think the fact that we've got a lot of tough road games this year will be good for both of the point guards. I was much more comfortable going with Lex [Hornbuckle] at the point, but I think sometimes that hurts her offensive game and hurts her rebounding."
To her credit, Bobbitt played terrific defense on Latta for most of the time she was in the game and showed both infectious energy and dangerous penetration on offense. That said, Bobbitt still finished with three assists, six turnovers and four fouls in 26 minutes, suggesting that the answer to a lingering question for the Lady Vols remains up in the air.
The last 10 seasons haven't produced even one addition to the school's top-10 single-season assist totals. Since the spring of 1996, when Michelle Marciniak picked up her 156th assist of the season and moved into sole possession of ninth place in the single-season top 10, Holly Warlick has been sitting all alone in the media guide waiting for someone to bump her out of 10th place in the agate type (of course, the current associate head coach also holds the second and sixth spots on the list, so it's not as if she needs the charity).
Summitt's program hasn't exactly fallen off the map without any individuals posting gaudy assists (winning a pair of titles during the 10-year stretch). Nobody would deny that guards like Loree Moore and Kara Lawson did outstanding jobs of running the offense, and Summitt's teams generally pass well as a collective unit (witness Anosike's brilliant distribution from the high post this season, including a pair of backdoor gems to Parker on Sunday).
But if Bobbitt learns from the adversity of these early games, it could give the Lady Vols a dynamic they've been missing for several seasons.
"We're still growing," Summitt said. "I like this team, I like their energy, I like their skill. They've been very tough-minded and competitive. We'll learn. That's why we're here, and that's why we play the schedule we play every year. There's a lot of time between now and the postseason."
Ironically, the situation might not be as promising for the winning team, with the victory reinforcing the notion that this team is best served with Latta as its point guard. Unquestionably one of the three or four best basketball players in the nation, along with Parker, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris and Stanford's Candice Wiggins, Latta is an uncomfortable choice as the pilot of an offense that Hatchell seems to encourage to run off the tracks.
"I thought it was too slow," Hatchell said of a first half that included 15 turnovers by the Tar Heels, including three against just two assists for Latta. "I kept telling Ivory to push it. We were setting up; I wanted to push the ball more. I didn't think we had enough possessions."
When the Tar Heels were at their most effective, in the middle stages of the second half, they were slowing the ball down long enough for Latta, Alex Miller and Rashanda McCants to find Erlana Larkins in the post. The most impressive player in white on the night, Larkins (17 points, 12 rebounds) repeatedly deked her way around the taller Parker on her way to five second-half field goals.
"I just think I did a better job of getting open," Larkins diplomatically said of her second half, not mentioning that she rarely had time to establish post position in the first half.
Pushing the ball and being aggressive in transition is obviously something this team does well, but at times the Tar Heels seem to force the action to a fault. With a bevy of post players made all the more dangerous with the addition of freshman Jessica Breland, whose first-half block of a Parker shot will likely linger in the minds of fans for the next four years, the Tar Heels could use a point guard intent on feeding the post when, as much as Hatchell hates them, half-court sets are required. But asking Latta to do that, instead of threatening defenses off the ball and creating for herself, would be a waste of resources.
Hatchell and the Tar Heels have the ultimate argument on their side in favor of the status quo, needing only to point to their perfect 7-0 record. But they were the best team in December last season as well, only to watch other teams catch up with them in March and April.
"They're very similar to what they were a year ago," Summitt said after the game.
She meant it as a compliment, but as big a win as Sunday was, the Tar Heels had better not be the same team they are now if these two teams meet again down the road.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.