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A Blue Streak
March 20, 2006
The engine that drives North Carolina's frenetic offense and high-pressure D, pint-sized point guard Ivory Latta is the key to a championship
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March 20, 2006

A Blue Streak

The engine that drives North Carolina's frenetic offense and high-pressure D, pint-sized point guard Ivory Latta is the key to a championship

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Here's something you might be surprised to learn about North Carolina junior Ivory Latta, the wide-eyed, hyperkinetic 5'6" point guard who pushes the ball for the No. 1 women's basketball team in the country: She hates to run. "It's true-I never ran track and only did cross-country because my dad made me," says Latta, with a throaty cackle. "I hate sprinting. But when I have a ball in my hand, it's a different story."

When Latta has the ball in her hands, North Carolina has the fastest, most electrifying offense in the nation. The transition game, which Duke coach Gail Goestenkors compares to a feeding frenzy, is particularly relentless. "They're pushing the ball on makes, misses, rebounds," says Goestenkors, who in practice has tried to simulate Carolina's pressure and speed by pitting five of her players against seven male players. (It hasn't helped; the Blue Devils have lost five straight to the Tar Heels.) "Their posts run the floor so well, it's hard to keep up with them. They're constantly attacking you."

When Latta doesn't have the ball in her hands ... well, wait two seconds and she will. Thanks largely to an effective 1-3-1 trap defense, Carolina averages 13 steals per game (second in the country) while opponents commit 23.4 turnovers. Six players average at least one steal a game with Latta, who shares the team lead of 2.3 with sophomore center Erlana Larkins, the most brazenly larcenous of the bunch. In the ACC championship game against Maryland on March 5, the 130-pound Latta-who bench-presses 175 pounds, squats 300 and is pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team-twice forcibly ripped the ball out of the hands of a much bigger Terrapin and converted those steals into layups.

Wake Forest coach Mike Peterson says the Tar Heels' defense reminds him of the 40 Minutes of Hell style of Nolan Richardson's early 1990s Arkansas teams, except that Carolina's is "much more disruptive. They are so completely different than any other opponent. Against other teams you're going to have an opportunity to run your offense. Against [the Tar Heels], you don't."

After avenging their only loss of the season by beating Maryland 90-81 in the conference title game-that was Latta doing chin-ups on the rim afterward-the Tar Heels enter the NCAA tournament with the best record (29-1) and the overall No. 1 seed. But to reach the Final Four in Boston on April 2 they will have to negotiate the most difficult region ( Cleveland) in the tournament. If form holds, a North Carolina win over 16th seed UC Riverside (16-14) on Saturday in Nashville would set up a second-round pairing with No. 8 seed Vanderbilt on the Commodores' home floor, followed by games in Cleveland against fourth seed Purdue and second seed Tennessee, the SEC champion (or perhaps third seed Rutgers, the Big East regular-season champ). If the Tar Heels reach Boston, they should find themselves in familiar company-bet on fellow ACC powers Duke and Maryland getting there too. Surprising Oklahoma, the first team to go undefeated in Big 12 play, should make it there too.

What gives the Tar Heels their best chance to win it all is their offensive diversity. Though they prefer to score in transition (getting 23.9 points a game off turnovers), they're much more effective in the half-court this season than they were in recent years. North Carolina runs three variations of their motion offense, which can originate with Latta or Larkins, a 6'1" center who can score in the low post, pass out of double-teams and hit the three, or junior Camille Little, a 6'2" point forward who averages 11.8 points and 5.2 rebounds and is one of six defense-stretching Tar Heels who have hit 19 or more three-pointers this year. Latta leads the team with an 18.4 scoring average, but overall the offense is balanced (seven players have led the team or tied for the lead in scoring) and deep (eight players average at least 10 minutes a game, and three others play at least eight). "The way we play, we have to substitute a lot," says coach Sylvia Hatchell, who's in her 20th year in Chapel Hill and her 14th NCAA tournament. "The more kids get to play, the happier they are."

Regardless of who is on the floor, tempo is critical-a philosophy that's drilled into the Carolina players (even in the weight room, where every one of their lifting sets is timed). Late in games, when an opponent is whipped, the Tar Heels push the ball even harder. "We go to a higher gear," says Latta. "That's the beautiful part."

This year's team is even faster and more aggressive than the 1993-94 squad that featured future Olympic sprint star Marion Jones, a freshman, at point guard. In what Hatchell called "the second-greatest miracle to take place on Easter Sunday," forward Charlotte Smith hit a three-point shot with .7 of a second left to beat Louisiana Tech 60-59 in the NCAA final. Since then, the Tar Heels have been a regular presence in the Top 10, but until last March, when they fell to eventual champion Baylor in the Tempe Regional final, they had advanced as far as the Elite Eight only once, in 1998. "We were good, but I wanted to get better," says Hatchell, a Hall of Famer. Moreover, she adds, "I wanted to fall in love with the game again."

Three years ago Hatchell scaled back her involvement in the various local church and community committees that were taking too much time away from basketball and started working summer camps around the country, in addition to her own, to reconnect with the game. She picked the brains of former NBA coach Hubie Brown, former Oregon and Tennessee men's coach Jerry Green, North Carolina high school coaching legend Howard West and Carolina men's coach Roy Williams, among others, incorporating elements of their offensive and defensive game plans into her own.

At the same time she continued to recruit versatile, fleet-footed athletes such as Latta, who also leads the team with 5.1 assists per game. "A lot of the reason we've added the things we have into our system is because we have a player like Ivory, who is so quick and can handle the ball so well," says Hatchell. "A lot of people wouldn't recruit her because she's so little. I heard, 'People will post her up,' and 'You're going to have mismatches.' Well, if you're running from foul line to foul line, that's not going to matter."

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