Inside and out, UNC just too much for Purdue
DALLAS -- The fans in the stands right behind press row -- some small, some not-so-small -- all seemed to have big lungs.
"IVORY!!!! LATTA!!! IVORY!!! LATTA!! ERLANA!!! LARKINS!!! ERLANA!!! LARKINS!!!"
And when North Carolina's dynamic duo finished with their net-cutting after an 84-72 regional final victory over Purdue on Tuesday, Erlana Larkins and Ivory Latta started over toward the yellers
I thought I was at a Hannah Montana concert. (Or, you know, whoever's cool now.) Kids were tossing T-shirts, shoes, mini basketballs and Sharpies, pleading for autographs. Youngsters and adults were taking pictures with their cell phone cameras.
"LATTA, PLEASE!!!" and "LARKINS, OVER HERE!!!!"
A thousand miles from Chapel Hill, N.C., the Tar Heels definitely felt some love from a small (3,311) but vocal crowd at Reunion Arena.
"I'm honored," Latta said later. "I had to show them some love back."
Larkins said, "It feels good, but also kind of weird. Because I would never think in a million years that little kids would be screaming my name."
Well, why not? Even the youngest among them probably could have added up 29 points plus 10 rebounds plus three assists plus four steals and know that equals the regional's most outstanding player, which Larkins was named.
"You know Erlana's OK," Latta said, teasing her teammate. "No, she's a great post player. And I'm confident every time I give her the ball. I get in trouble because I'm there watching, because I don't know what she's going to do next. She did a fantastic job tonight, and she'll continue to do well for us."
Latta didn't too badly herself, with 21 points, four assists and two steals. Rashanda McCants had 15 points, Camille Little scored 10 and LaToya Pringle registered seven points and 10 rebounds.
Purdue's big three of Katie Gearlds (28 points), Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton (14) and Erin Lawless (10) did just about everything they could. Rookie guard FahKara Malone had nine points and played 40 minutes. Sophomore Jodi Howell, after getting crunched to the floor against Georgia and injuring her shoulder, gritted through 17 minutes of a game she wasn't expected to play in and scored seven points.
DALLAS -- Still with remnants of a shiner, Purdue's Katie Gearlds looked a little like an exhausted boxer who went 15 rounds and lost by decision. She apologized in advance for crying through all her answers.
No need for apologies. An 84-72 regional final loss was a hard ending for both Gearlds and fellow senior Erin Lawless. Falling in the Elite Eight leaves players with that empty, "We were almost there," feeling about the Holy Grail of the Final Four.
But there's a lot to be said for leaving everything on the floor, and there's no doubt Gearlds (28 points) and Lawless (10 points, while battling the relentless Tar Heels inside) did that.
"We battled; no one probably gave us a chance tonight," Gearlds said. "It's satisfying because I felt like I laid my heart out there. That's easy to do when you feel like all your teammates and coaches are doing the same thing. But as a competitor, I still wish I could have done more."
UNC had a 36-32 edge on the boards -- but, frankly, that's a lot better than many probably expected Purdue to fare in rebounding against this team of jumping jacks. And while the Boilermakers had 21 turnovers, they forced 18 from the Tar Heels.
The fact that those efforts still weren't enough is a testament to how good North Carolina is. Despite being overmatched inside, Purdue managed to make it a competitive game -- the only one among the four regional finals. There probably are still some fans asleep in the arenas in Greensboro, Dayton and Fresno, through which Rutgers, Tennessee and LSU advanced.
But everyone was on their toes in Dallas. Purdue was up as much as five in the first half, but the Tar Heels came back and led 35-28 at the break. In the second half, Purdue got as close as four, with 6:47 left. Latta missed a 3-pointer, then Gearlds got the rebound and raced down to attempt a 3-pointer. It was a no-go, and Larkins converted a layup on the other end.
Purdue kept battling, but the war at that point was all but won. Every time you thought maybe the Boilermakers were going to get closer, North Carolina would get the basket it needed.
"They are great post players down low, really physical and tough in there," Lawless said. "You just have to give credit to them."
Last year, North Carolina was the No. 1 seed in the Cleveland Regional and beat No. 2 Tennessee to advance to the program's second Final Four. It had, of course, been a long time since the first: 1994.
Now, North Carolina and Tennessee are the two No. 1 seeds left, and they meet again in Cleveland -- this time in the national semifinals. Larkins had a fantastic game last year against Maryland in the Final Four semis on her 20th birthday: 28 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals.
QUICKEN LOANS ARENA
But the rest of the Tar Heels didn't do as well. Latta got injured, and North Carolina fell to the Terrapins, 81-70. That and a regular-season loss to the Terps were the only two defeats of the Tar Heels' 2005-06 season.
Similarly, this year the only teams that have beaten the Tar Heels are their ACC foes Duke (twice) and NC State. It might surprise some, considering the rivalry, but Larkins sent out a compliment to the Blue Devils on Tuesday.
"Duke is a great team and they showed the whole nation that," Larkins said. "Although they're not in the tournament anymore, that doesn't take away from the great season they had. They play hard all the time, have great shooters, great inside game, shot-blockers. I think playing them shows us everything that teams in the Final Four are going to have."
North Carolina was capable of winning the NCAA title last year, though that didn't happen. How does this season's group compare to 2005-06?
"I just feel we are a more well-balanced team," Larkins said. "We were good last year, but specific people were doing the majority of the scoring.
"I think it makes it a little easier that we've done this before [going to a Final Four], but I also think it makes you more hungry. We don't just want to go, but win. It's a happy moment now for us, but it's got us hungry because we know the feeling of coming up short."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.