A convincing win over No. 4 Tennessee sent the message that North Carolina is once again a championship contender
WHEN NORTH CAROLINA and Tennessee faced each other in the Cleveland Regional final last March, the Tar Heels won 75--63, but North Carolina forward Erlana Larkins scored just seven points, half her average. Larkins didn't plan to dwell on that subpar performance going into the sold-out rematch at Chapel Hill on Sunday. But then point guard Ivory Latta started chirping in her ear. "I told her, 'Look, last year you didn't have a good game against them,'" says Latta. "'You better redeem yourself.'"
The 6'1" Larkins did that and more. After scoring just four points in a sloppy, frenetically paced first half in which the teams combined for more fouls (22) and turnovers (31) than field goals (21), she established her offensive authority. Upon scoring the Tar Heels' first bucket of the second half to give her team a lead it would never relinquish, the usually laid-back junior shouted to her teammates, "Give me the ball!" Larkins used a few well-practiced feints on Tennessee forwards Alex Fuller and Candace Parker, hitting five more field goals and adding seven rebounds as the No. 2 Tar Heels defeated the No. 4 Lady Vols 70--57, beating a Top 5 nonconference opponent at home for the first time in the program's history.
"I just started feeling it," says Larkins, who finished the game with team highs of 17 points and 12 rebounds. "Normally I really like to pass the ball, but tonight I knew my team needed me to put some points on the board."
Larkins spent the off-season polishing her leadership skills as a co-captain of the U.S. squad that won the Under-20 Americas Championship in Mexico City and hitting the weight room back home. (She's the only Tar Heel who can squat 300 pounds.) "I used to have the squat record," sighs Latta, who spent her summer rehabbing from knee surgery, "but I've gotten over it. Besides, I love Erlana's new look. People just bounce off her now!"
Larkins, who leads the team in rebounding (8.5 boards a game) and steals (3.0), averages 12.9 points. She is one of four Tar Heels who score in double figures; two others average more than nine points. But North Carolina, which returned all but three players from last year's Final Four team, has racked up most of its points in blowouts of lesser opponents such as Elon, Winston--Salem State and Sacramento State. The Heels faced their first test in the Lady Vols, an improved squad with national player of the year candidate Parker in the middle and a quick point guard, junior college transfer Shannon Bobbitt, on the perimeter. Though Bobbitt struggled to hang on to the ball against Carolina's pressure (she had six turnovers), Parker was unstoppable, getting 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. (She was so effective that when the Tar Heels' 6'3" junior LaToya Pringle blocked one of her shots in the first half, the crowd leaped to its feet and roared.) But no other Lady Vol scored in double figures.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell was happy not only with her team's defense but also with its depth, offensive balance and rebounding (43 boards to Tennessee's 33). Indeed, the only flaws Hatchell could find with the Tar Heels was that their breakneck pace was "too slow" and that they needed to make better decisions in transition. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt couldn't find much to fault, either. "They were a great team last year, and they are a great team this year," she said.
Larkins hopes the rest of college basketball gets that message. "Everyone has been talking about Oklahoma and Ohio State and Tennessee, and they seem to have forgotten about us," she says. " Maryland has been predicted to win the ACC championship, but just beware. We haven't gone away."