Latta's supporting cast, particularly Larkins, is key

Updated: March 14, 2006, 9:45 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

North Carolina can win the NCAA title if: Erlana Larkins plays Robin to Ivory Latta's Batman

The box score from North Carolina's win against Duke on Feb. 25 is not the kind of thing an opposing coach should read just before going to sleep, unless she or he wants to leave that reading light on all night to stave off the ensuing nightmares.

MORE TEAM BREAKDOWNS
Taking a closer look at the favorites to win the 2006 NCAA Tournament, ESPN.com's Graham Hays identifies the biggest X factors facing each team:

• UConn's fate rests in Houston's hands
There might not be a more gifted player with the ball in her hands than Charde Houston. But can she break loose in the Big Dance?

• Time for Currie to come up big for Duke
Duke personifies the team concept. But Monique Currie must be able to put her teammates on her back when needed.

• Tiger duo could be best in bracket
Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles will determine how far LSU advances. But if they come up big, it's a 1-2 punch that could knock out the field.

• Terps must limit turnovers
The Terps are good enough to beat any team in the country -- as long as their guards take care of the ball.

• Larkins must be Robin to Latta's Batman
When (and if) star Ivory Latta should falter this NCAA Tournament, Erlana Larkins must be the one to step up for UNC.

• Packer can't let OSU foes pack in paint
Marscilla Packer must keep hitting shots from outside to open up the paint for OSU and Jessica Davenport.

• OU's role players can't disappear
Courtney Paris will come up big. But for OU to win, it needs every part firing on all cylinders to get it done against top competition.

• Two sides to Rutgers' aggression
Rutgers could go far on its relentless and downright annoying defense -- as long as opponents don't match or find a way to exploit that aggressiveness.

• Will fatigue be a factor for Tennessee?
Tennessee's success rests solely on its starters, who are more familiar with each other than Buddhist monks in monasteries.

The Blue Devils, who were ranked No. 1 in the country and had lost just one game at the time, traveled to Chapel Hill and did exactly what they needed to do against Ivory Latta. The star who most presume stirs the drink for the Tar Heels, Latta missed 12 shots and turned over the ball nine times against the Blue Devils. Given the circumstances, it was easily her worst performance in an otherwise Wade-worthy junior season.

So why were Latta and the Tar Heels celebrating their return to the No. 1 ranking after beating the Blue Devils 77-65?

Two words: Erlana Larkins.

The sophomore forward eviscerated the Blue Devils inside, totaling 16 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Duke fans may grumble about some of the calls, but it was the energized and aggressive play of Larkins and La'Tangela Atkinson that put Duke's Mistie Williams and Chante Black in position to be called for nine fouls in 35 combined minutes on the floor.

A second-team All-ACC selection as a freshman, Larkins hasn't always been as visible a presence as that honor or her line against Duke might suggest. Despite shooting nearly 59 percent from the floor and averaging 12.7 points per game this season, she's capable of more. In a conference loaded with interior prospects like Georgia's Tasha Humphrey and Maryland's Crystal Langhorne, Larkins is every bit as talented.

There is a fine line between supporting a star like Latta and simply watching her. And when it comes to walking that line, Larkins is nowhere near as deft as Reese Witherspoon.

As great as Latta is -- and the fact that she's shooting nearly 46 percent from behind the arc despite constant defensive harassment is one of the season's most remarkable statistics -- it's asking a lot for her to avoid an off night for six consecutive games. Proof of that is still less than a year old.

Last March, when Arizona State and a partisan crowd in Tempe hounded Latta all night (she still finished with 20 points) in a Sweet 16 encounter, Larkins stepped up with 18 points as the Tar Heels staved off an upset bid. But two days later, when Latta suffered through a 6-for-22 night against Baylor, Larkins produced just six points in 31 minutes as the top-seeded Tar Heels bowed out of the NCAA Tournament.

Both Latta and the Tar Heels are improved this time around, but there are no easy roads to Boston (metaphorically, or as many folks are about to discover, literally), and the odds are against even Latta succeeding in a one-woman review for three weeks in a row.

The Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 not only because they have one of the brightest stars in the college game, but because they have the kind of supporting talent that was on display in the second game against Duke this season. Atkinson, Camille Little, Rashanda McCants and sharpshooter Heather Claytor are among the best role players in the nation. Larkins, on the other hand, should be among the biggest stars in the nation.

Latta must do her thing, but for the Tar Heels to be the team that beat Duke and not the team that lost to Baylor last season, it's equally important for Larkins to be a star sidekick.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.