No. 3 Tar Heels hold off Wolfpack upset bid in final minutes

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- After learning she had a broken bone in her left hand, Erlana Larkins knew she could sit out a few weeks and hope to recover in time to help North Carolina stay in the Atlantic Coast Conference title chase.

Instead, she opted to play through the pain, a decision that is keeping her third-ranked Tar Heels among the nation's elite.

Larkins had 22 points and eight rebounds to help North Carolina beat North Carolina State 79-70 on Sunday, giving the Tar Heels' their 14th win in 16 meetings.

LaToya Pringle added 16 points and a pair of key second-half baskets for the Tar Heels (16-1, 3-0 ACC), who led almost the entire way but couldn't put away the Wolfpack (12-5, 0-2) until the final seconds.

"Every time State made a run, we seemed to step it up a notch and answered," coach Sylvia Hatchell said.

Larkins was one of the biggest reasons why. Playing with padding and tape protecting her left hand, the 6-foot-1 senior went 9-for-19 from the field in 31 minutes while banging around inside against Khadijah Whittington, the ACC's leading scorer and rebounder.

"Playing through it is just something that comes along with it," Larkins said. "It's either 'Are you going to sit out five weeks?' or 'Are you going to deal with tolerable pain?' It's just part of the game. That was my decision to play with it."

Larkins, averaging 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds, fell just short of recording her third straight double-double since hurting her hand against Liberty on Dec. 30. But she feels pain every time a defender chops down on her hand trying to jar the ball loose in the paint.

"She's in pain now," Hatchell said. "In her situation, most players would be out for the season. If all this doesn't make her an All-American, I don't know what does."

Shayla Fields had 17 points to lead N.C. State, which couldn't repeat its 72-65 upset of the then-No. 2 and Final Four-bound Tar Heels here last February. That win came on an emotional night in which the school dedicated "Kay Yow Court" to honor its Hall of Fame coach.

But North Carolina clamped down early on Whittington to take a 36-30 halftime lead. That lead ultimately held up, reaching as much as 11 points midway through the second half, though the Wolfpack hung in and never let the Tar Heels put together a big run with their fast-paced attack.

Ultimately, the Tar Heels helped themselves by scoring 31 second-chance points on 28 offensive rebounds, with 18 of those boards coming in the second half. That offset a 40-percent shooting day, which included 1-for-13 from behind the 3-point arc.

"The thing that we can't seem to get a hold on as much as we would like are those second-chance points," Yow said. "We knew this was one of the things we had to do. We did a great job on transition defense. We did a great job taking care of the ball with a lot of young players in the lineup.

"They played really hard. They were aggressive. They were attack-minded a lot. I liked all of those things. I have no complaints there."

Whittington, averaging 18.6 points and 11.9 rebounds, managed only four points in the first half against the Tar Heels' tough front line of Larkins, Pringle and reserves Jessica Breland and Iman McFarland. She had a better second half, finishing with 15 points and nine boards before fouling out with 3:19 left and N.C. State trailing 69-61.

Ultimately, Larkins and Pringle came up with several key baskets to hold off the Wolfpack. First, after N.C. State had pulled within three, the 6-3 Pringle knocked down a turnaround shot in the lane followed by an inside score off a feed from Breland to make it 66-58 with 6:19 left.

Then, after Sharnise Beal hit a 3-pointer to close the gap to four after Whittington had fouled out, Larkins scored on an up-and-under move against Gloria Brown to make it 74-68 with 1:39 left. N.C. State got no closer than five in the final seconds.

Breland finished with 10 points and six rebounds, while McFarland had nine points and six offensive rebounds to help the Tar Heels outscore the Wolfpack 42-22 in the paint.