Commentary

Like Latta, freshman Lucas ready to run, lead UNC

Updated: November 9, 2007, 1:59 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Wouldn't it be great if, just for laughs, freshman Italee Lucas does the "muscle flex" after scoring her first basket for North Carolina against Tennessee this year?

You know, in "defiant" tribute to the star guard and vaudeville act who last season finished her career against the Orange Crush, the irrepressible Ivory "I'm ready for my close-up" Latta.

[+] EnlargeItalee Lucas
Michael Hickey/WireImageFormer McDonald's high school All-American Italee Lucas isn't trying to be another Ivory Latta. But she appears poised to make the same kind of impact for North Carolina.

Last season, Lucas was in Cleveland watching her future team play in the Women's Final Four. The Tar Heels went up by 12 on Tennessee, Latta did the "flex" … but then UNC's offense left the building. Carolina lost 56-50, its second consecutive national semifinal defeat. It seemed crushing … but, as expected, coach Sylvia Hatchell didn't dwell on the disappointment side of it for very long.

"It just makes us want it that much more because we came up short," she said. "We know we probably should have won and how close we were. It's just more motivation."

So Lucas could "flex" when the teams meet Dec. 2 in Knoxville, as if to send the message, "This time, we're going to get you, Tennessee. And everybody else better watch out for us, too."

But she won't; Lucas isn't trying to be another Latta. However, she appears poised to make the same kind of impact for Carolina.

I can be excessively fascinated by small coincidences, such as the fact that the Tar Heels have another standout guard with the initials "I.L." who comes in right after the first "I.L." departed.

Of course, Carolina's opponents are going to feel "I-L-L" when they get a look at how fast the Tar Heels' hell-on-wheels backcourt will be this season. Not like it has really ever been slow under Hatchell, but this year …

There's the 5-foot-8 combo-guard Lucas, a blue-chipper out of Las Vegas who said that thanks to her hoops-loving dad, she has been "learning to dribble since I was an infant."

Her father, LaMar Lucas, played college basketball at Wayland Baptist and now will be a frequent presence in Chapel Hill.

"He's like my best friend, and he'll be out here a lot," Lucas said. "He bought me my first hoop when I was 3, and we really started training when I was about 5."

Carolina also will have Cetera DeGraffenreid, out of Cullowhee, N.C., who can get down the court quicker than you can say her name. Another rookie, Rebecca Gray of Georgetown, Ky., also has impressed Hatchell thus far.

And there's veteran Alex Miller, a senior out of Durham who's ready to grab a little spotlight herself.

I talked to Hatchell the day after Carolina's exhibition win on Halloween against Premier Players, and she chuckled like Snidely Whiplash when saying the Heels had 119 possessions during that game.

"I told Roy Williams that this morning, and he just blinked his eyes and said, 'Wow,' " Hatchell said. "He couldn't believe it."

If Hatchell could, she'd put the Heels on rollerblades and try to get 219 possessions a game. Then she'd say things like, "Seventy-five turnovers? So what?"

One thing about Hatchell is when she commits to something, it's, "Full speed ahead, the iceberg's sure to melt before we reach it!" I don't know any coach who sounds more iron-clad confident -- whether there is reason to be or not -- about every single thing in her program.

Several years back, for example, Carolina didn't have a center. Actually, people were on the roster with "center" by their names, but nobody was really very effective at the position. In fact, the Tar Heels didn't have much in the way of a true power forward, either. What they did have were some talented on-the-smaller-side players who were either very fast, or jumping jacks, or both.

So Hatchell just said things like, "Who needs height? Who needs a low-post game? We don't need that. I love my team."

Truth is, I believe she really did love it. But the past few years, Hatchell has developed the type of team she really, really, really loves. Quick guards who can defend and shoot; post players of both the banger and the gazelle variety. And everybody has to hoof it.

Hatchell tells her young players, "Don't slow down to keep from making mistakes. I want you to keep your speed up. Timing will come to you as we continue to play."

Lucas got a look at this style when she came to Carolina's camp as a ninth-grader and loved it. But she already had the Blue Fever, idolizing Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm (Lucas played soccer, too) from childhood. Lucas committed to the Tar Heels as a sophomore in high school.

"Not only do the colors look good on me," Lucas said, laughing, "but I always wanted to go there since I was little."

She comes to Carolina at a most opportune time.

Now that we're several months past Latta's last game for the Tar Heels, Hatchell finally can acknowledge the obvious: Latta was never really 100 percent as a senior. The knee injury she suffered during the 2006 Final Four did slow her a bit, even though she still led the Tar Heels in scoring (16.2) her final season.

For that matter, standout forward Erlana Larkins was not quite as sharp last year as she had been as a sophomore -- although like Latta, Larkins at less than 100 percent was still pretty good. Larkins averaged 12.9 points and 9.4 rebounds last year.

And, remember, the Tar Heels were perfect up until their Feb. 8 meeting with Duke, in which Latta's shooting woes were a big factor in a 64-53 loss. Carolina still went on to claim the ACC tournament again and make another Final Four. Even if the Tar Heels didn't win it all, they've proven their coach's "turnover-shmurnover" philosophy can go a long way.

Larkins returns, as do post players LaToya Pringle and Rashanda McCants, the latter of whom was particularly impressive during the NCAA Tournament last year. And look for forward Jessica Breland to expand her role as a sophomore, helping McCants fill the big gap left by Camille Little, who averaged 13.7 points last season and like Latta is now in the WNBA.

And always pushing the gas hard will be Hatchell.

She has told her veteran post players that if the young guards such as Lucas overthrow them on the fast break, that means … the posts better jump higher next time.

"It is a great fit here for Italee," Hatchell said. "When she makes a turnover, she's sometimes still looking over at the bench expecting to get chewed out. But I don't do that. I'm just telling her, 'Keep going, keep that tempo up.' "

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.