UNC never finds rhythm vs. Baylor

Updated: March 28, 2005, 10:23 PM ET
Associated Press

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Nearly everything that helped North Carolina to its first 30-win season in 10 years failed the top-seeded Tar Heels when it mattered most.

They couldn't defend the perimeter or the paint. They threw the ball away possession after possession. And the Tar Heels didn't get many of those easy shots they are so used to in their up-tempo offense.

An inspired Baylor team, seeded second, kept North Carolina from returning to the Final Four for the first time since winning the NCAA title in 1994 with a 72-63 victory in the Tempe Regional final Monday night.

"It was terrible," freshman sensation Erlana Larkins said, fighting tears. "Maybe it was us. Maybe we didn't execute. You could tell they wanted it more. They went after those balls and played their hearts out. We didn't do the same."

North Carolina came in with four starters averaging double figures -- only three scored 10 points or more, and most of those points came during a late rally that fell short.

Spunky point guard Ivory Latta had 21 points and reserve Leah Metcalf's 11 points were the next most in the first meeting between these schools. With 16 straight wins, the Tar Heels (30-4) had the second-longest winning streak in school history and certainly seemed confident in their chances to make a run at the national title.

As Baylor's players scurried to center court at Wells Fargo Arena to celebrate, North Carolina made a quick exit. In the locker room, they sat stonefaced and shellshocked.

Even the cheerleaders were crying after this one.

"Several players weren't up to par tonight," Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "We have players who usually play better than that. Why? I don't really know. Baylor may have had something to do with that. We hate to end our season like this."

The Tar Heels never found a rhythm, mostly because they were sloppy with the ball and allowed the Lady Bears to beat them to the boards all night.

Larkins was held to single digits for just the fifth time this season. Cold-shooting North Carolina trailed by as many as 19 points, its biggest deficit all season, and shot just 32.4 percent.

The Tar Heels didn't get to the free-throw line until the 5-foot-6 Latta drove to the basket and was fouled six seconds before halftime.

North Carolina, ranked fourth in the final poll, beat fifth-seeded Arizona State 79-72 on Saturday to advance to its third final eight and first since 1998, when the Tar Heels lost to eventual national champion Tennessee.

They earned one of the bracket's four No. 1 seeds, beating out top-ranked Stanford. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson, who has her team in its first Final Four, felt slighted with a No. 2 after winning the Big 12 tournament.

North Carolina's three wins over Duke and 71-65 victory over three-time defending champion Connecticut back on Nov. 21 certainly came into account for the selection committee.

But after the Tar Heels shot 50.6 percent in their first three tournament games, their inexperience showed against a Baylor team that starts three seniors and two juniors. Nikita Bell is the lone senior in North Carolina's starting lineup.

"They came out tougher than we did," Bell said. "Baylor plays hard, physical and scrappy."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press