Tar Heels Overcome 17-Point Deficit, Defeat Virginia, 78-72
March 6, 2005
By DAVID DROSCHAK
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Heart and passion in a small package.
That's how North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell likes to describe Ivory Latta.
Latta had every one of those qualities and then some Sunday in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, rallying the Tar Heels from a 17-point second-half deficit to a 78-72 win over Virginia.
Latta scored eight of her career-high 32 points in the Tar Heels' game-ending 17-2 run that propelled the top-seeded team into the title game for the fourth straight year.
North Carolina (26-3) has lost to Duke in each of those championship games.
"Ivory is a winner," Hatchell said of her 5-foot-6 point guard. "She just loves to play and what she has is contagious. She believes we're going to win all the time. That all paid off for us in this game."
North Carolina beat up Virginia in two regular-season meetings, winning by 20 and 29 points. But the Cavaliers (20-10) drew up a nice game plan and had the Tar Heels on the run until Latta took over down the stretch.
"Latta is one of the finest point guards I've ever seen," said Virginia's Debbie Ryan, who has coached the Cavaliers for 28 years. "She's amazing because she not only finds other players on the team, but whenever a big shot needs to be taken Latta steps up and hits it.
"She empowers the players around her to play better. I don't think you can ask any more of a point guard. I see that in everything she does."
Just like in its tournament opener against Miami on Saturday, the Tar Heels fell behind at the break with poor ballhandling and a defense that allowed fifth-seeded Virginia into the paint for 11 of its first 14 baskets.
The Tar Heels made a mini-run halfway through the second period to close to 58-53, but the Cavaliers used a timeout by Ryan to collect themselves and went back up by nine with 3:45 left.
That's when Hatchell decided to unleash her full-court press on defense and Latta took over on offense. The sophomore guard made four straight free throws before hitting a spinning shot in the lane with 34.1 seconds remaining to put the Tar Heels up for good at 73-72.
She's not afraid to go in there among the trees to make those shots," Hatchell said. "And if she gets fouled I'm pretty confident with her on the foul line. She loves going in there. She went in there and made some nice moves. We've worked on her shot fakes in the off-season."
Latta said the coaching staff had told the team to get more aggressive and try to get to the foul line in the final three minutes of the game. She took that advice and drove in for the key bucket.
"That was the main thing I was thinking, to just get in the lane and pump fake," Latta said. "When I was getting ready to make the shot there wasn't anybody there to jump above it, so I just tried to do a little floater. I've been working on that the last couple of days. Fortunately it went in."
Virginia was hurt by the absence of senior guard LaTonya Blue, who missed her second straight game with an ankle injury. The Cavaliers turned it over 16 times in the second half, including three times in four possessions during North Carolina's closing run.
"If LaTonya had been healthy today she would have been on Latta," Ryan said. "I didn't have a choice. It's a mismatch for us right now."
Nikita Bell added 18 points for North Carolina, which coughed up the ball just four times in the second half after having 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
Tiffany Sardin led the Cavaliers with a career-high 21 points. She came in to the weekend averaging just 3.7 points a game.