Blockbuster on tap in Cleveland
The two teams that seemed most likely to have prevented the North Carolina-Tennessee showdown gave their best shot Sunday in the Cleveland Regional.
Ivory Latta deserves a lot of credit for her last-second layin Sunday that clinched a spot in the Elite Eight for North Carolina. But it never should have happened. And if Tennessee is going to beat the Tar Heels when they clash Tuesday, the Lady Vols must get a lot of early help on dribble penetration when Latta comes their way.
Here's a quick look at some of the X factors that Tennessee -- which is playing its best basketball of the season -- faces:
• There's no reason Latta should have been able to drive from the top of the key to the rim for the game winner vs. Purdue. One of the Boilers should have stepped up to meet her. Latta is good at identifying when opponents are presenting a hard denial on the wing, which opens up the lane. But when she drives inside, the Lady Vols must leave their player on the wing, rotate into that space and meet her at the junction. She might get past the first line of defense, but a second one had better at least present itself.
• Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter said she hadn't seen a team with Tennessee's size all season and admitted it presented a challenge. Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike must continue to exploit that advantage. That could be tough because North Carolina's posts have both length and strength, and Erlana Larkins, Camille Little and La'Tangela Atkinson are quicker than the Lady Vols. Whoever wins the rebounding war has a huge edge.
• Shanna Zolman is playing incredibly. But it can't stop now. If her outside shots stop falling, Tennessee will be hard-pressed to keep up with UNC in what I expect to be a high-scoring game. When Zolman's hitting her shots, Tennessee is a really good half-court team.
• Critics might question this tactic immediately, but how about putting Candace Parker on Latta for a bit? Granted, Anosike shouldered a lot of the defensive duties on Pondexter on Sunday, but Parker helped. Parker certainly would take Latta away from the rim and change the passing angles.
-- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
But Rutgers and Purdue fell short -- the Boilermakers painfully so on the Ivory Latta basket that will be replayed again and again -- and it will be the two giants who'll meet Tuesday night (ESPN, 7 ET) for a trip to Boston.
All along, this regional has reminded me of the Midwest in 1996, when No. 1 Louisiana Tech and No. 2 Georgia -- which I thought were the best two teams in the country that season -- had to meet in the Elite Eight.
Louisiana Tech lost one of its key players, Maquisha Walker, to a knee injury during the tournament and ended up falling 90-76 in the regional final. Then Georgia went to the NCAA title game, but nemesis Tennessee got the championship.
Tuesday's UNC-Tennessee matchup ought to be a lot closer than that Georgia-Louisiana Tech final from a decade ago. And history favors Tennessee. Doesn't it always?
In this case, that's for two reasons: Tennessee has been to the Final Four an absurd 16 times, North Carolina once. But also, the Orange Crush is 12-1 against the Tar Heels. North Carolina's only win came in January 1986, 82-68 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The last time they met was eight years ago. It was a memorable game that was also in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels had a second-half lead, but Tennessee had Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and the edge of being the crowd favorite in the regional in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee won 76-70 and went on to take the national championship in a 39-0 season. And until now, that has been it as far as the Tennessee-North Carolina "rivalry."
In fact, aside from the two NCAA meetings in the 1990s -- the other time was in the regional semifinals in 1993 -- these two programs haven't met of their own accord since 1988.
North Carolina fans might not like to hear it, but coach Sylvia Hatchell has shied away from having many big battles in the nonconference portion of her schedule.
It's exactly the opposite of what Tennessee has done -- coach Pat Summitt plays the hardest schedule in the country every year.
Now, the teams that were 1-2 in the RPI have no choice: They have to take on each other.
All things considered, it seems as if Tennessee couldn't be playing much better at just the right time. North Carolina has to breathe a sigh of relief that it's still in the tournament. But the rule of postseason is always this: It doesn't matter how you win, just that you do win.
How does that translate for Tuesday? Odds are, we're in store for a blockbuster.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.