Top-Seeded North Carolina Defeats Virginia to Move Into Its 13th ACC Championship Game in 15 Years
March 8, 2008
By Steve Phillips
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Rashanda McCants' ankle throbbed in pain as she left the court early in Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference Women's Tournament semifinal game against Virginia. But North Carolina's junior forward had no intention of calling it a day.
"The trainers just taped it up real tight," McCants said. "I told them, `Just give me some medicine, and I'll be back out there. Some Tylenol or something.' "
Neither the twisted ankle nor the Cavaliers could prevent McCants from leading the Tar Heels to their 13th tournament championship game in 15 years. With McCants scoring 23 points - 19 in the first half - and pulling down 10 rebounds, UNC posted an 80-65 win.
The Tar Heels (29-2) go after their fourth straight tournament title Sunday at 1 p.m. when they will face the Maryland-Duke winner in championship game.
"It would be a great accomplishment for our seniors to go out with a bang," McCants said of winning another title. "And as a junior, it would be great to keep alive our experience of winning championships."
Virginia, at 23-9 and with 10 ACC regular-season wins, should be in good shape when NCAA Tournament at-large selections are announced March 17. But that was of little consolation to Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan on Saturday.
"I didn't feel like we put our best foot forward today," Ryan said. "This was not our best effort. I think we had more energy to give today, and for some reason we didn't get a fundamental part of the game done."
The 6-foot-1 McCants was vital part of a UNC offensive game plan that again emphasized working the ball inside. Forty-six of the Tar Heels' points came in the paint, and another 21 came at the foul line.
LaToya Pringle added 15 points for the Tar Heels while blocking five shots, and Jessica Breland came off the bench to score 15. All-ACC forward Erlana Larkins struggled through a 2-of-10 shooting afternoon but hit 10 free throws and led all rebounders with 15.
"That may have been the worst shooting day Erlana has had," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "But rebounding and at the foul line, she made up for it."
Virginia's Monica Wright poured in a game-high 31 points, and Lyndra Littles scored 15 while gathering 14 rebounds. But the Cavaliers lost the overall rebounding battle and turned the ball over 26 times.
"I felt like we battled," Ryan said. "But we just seemed like we couldn't stay with them on the boards. We also turned the ball over far too much trying to make plays that weren't there. That's really the tale of the game."
McCants scored eight of UNC's first 11 points, keying the Tar Heels an early eight-point lead. She sat out over six minutes after her ankle injury, then returned to score 11 points in the final 5:31 of the first half.
"They set up some plays for me, and it was just a matter of hitting the shot when we needed them," McCants said.
Virginia overcame the Tar Heels' strong start, grabbed a short-lived one point lead and trailed by just three points with two minutes left in the first half. But UNC outscored the Cavaliers 7-1 in the final 1:57 to claim a 40-31 lead at intermission.
McCants went 7-of-10 from the floor in a first half that saw the Tar Heels shoot just 37 percent as a team. Wright was nearly as efficient for Virginia, scoring 16 points while going 6-of-8.
Virginia got as close as 58-50 with 10:21 remaining in the second half as Wright connected on a 3-point shot and a driving layup on consecutive possessions.
But UNC countered by scoring nine unanswered points. Breland provided the highlight when she picked off a Cavalier pass near midcourt, drove for the layup and completed a three-point play after being fouled by Sharnee Zoll. That pushed the lead to 64-50 with 9:15 remaining, and the Tar Heels led by a comfortable margin the rest of the way.
McCants scored just four points in the second half, but continued to hit the boards and help the Tar Heels by making hustle plays. Even after the ankle injury and picking up her third foul, McCants forced a pair of Virginia turnovers by drawing charges.
"Rashanda is an intelligent player, and she knows what to do," Hatchell said. "I trust her to make those decisions out there."
UNC freshman guard Rebecca Gray, who suffered a head injury while taking a hard fall during Friday's quarterfinal win over Clemson, was on the Tar Heels' bench on Saturday. Gray wore sunglasses due to light sensitivity, and her status for returning to action is listed as day-to-day.
A UNC spokesman said Gray underwent a CT scan Friday evening at Moses Cone Hospital that proved negative, and she returned to the team hotel.