North Carolina 84, Purdue 72 [women]


Tuesday, March 27th 2007, 10:14 pm
By: News On 6


DALLAS (AP) _ Once again, Ivory Latta was headed to the locker room way too early in a late-round NCAA tournament game, North Carolina's hopes possibly going with her.

Only this time, Latta came back. And the Tar Heels never wavered.

Latta limped off a few minutes before halftime, but returned to help Erlana Larkins lead a strong start to the second half that top-seeded North Carolina rode to a 84-72 victory over Purdue in the finals of the Dallas Regional on Tuesday night, clinching a spot in the Final Four for the second year in a row.

Last year's title shot was ruined when Latta hurt her knee early in a loss to Maryland in the national semifinal. Now a senior who has vowed to do whatever it takes to go out with a championship, she'll have a few days to recover before facing fellow No. 1 seed Tennessee in Cleveland on Sunday.

``It was only a cramp,'' Latta said. ``Everything's all good.''

Larkins had a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds as the Tar Heels (34-3) set a school record for wins and kept alive their chances for a second crown. Latta had 21 points, her most this tournament, plus her usual leadership and spunky attitude _ or Latta-tude, as it's called in Chapel Hill.

``It feels good,'' said Latta, wearing her regional championship T-shirt and hat while signing autographs for fans as her teammates cut down the net. ``Purdue's a great team. This was a big win.''

The Boilermakers (31-6) were within 64-60 with 6:47 left when star Katie Gearlds fed Jodi Howell for a layup, forcing a timeout and drawing a scream and an exultant jab from Gearlds. After Latta missed a 3-pointer on the other end, Gearlds put up a 3 of her own and got nothing but air. She couldn't help but laugh and pat her chest, saying ``My bad'' as she looked at the bench.

North Carolina answered with a 7-0 rally led by Larkins. She started it with a 3-point play, then assisted on two more baskets as the Tar Heels turned away Purdue's hopes of getting to the Final Four in its first season under coach Sharon Versyp.

Larkins, who was named the most outstanding player of the regional, scored eight of UNC's first 10 points in the second half and Latta hit a jumper for the other. The lead peaked at nine before the Boilermakers made things interesting, although they never regained the lead.

``We weren't going to quit,'' said Gearlds, who scored 28 points. ``We showed a lot of character. ... They forced us out of our comfort zone.''

Purdue only was in control during an 11-2 stretch midway through the first half. North Carolina had a 16-2 spurt right after, but the final basket in that run was when Latta came away limping, a hand on her left hip. She went to the locker room with 2:06 left in the half.

A group of Tar Heels fans leaned over the tunnel to slap hands with players as they came out for the second half. Latta kept up the suspense by being the 11th of the 13 players to come out.

The Boilermakers missed their last shot and Latta caught the rebound. Looking up to see only 10 seconds remained, she never budged, her smile growing as the clock neared zero. She began screaming and pumping her arm for the final ticks, then hurled the ball skyward after the buzzer.

Gearlds walked to the bench slowly, the front collar of her jersey pulled over her mouth. She'd tied the school single-season record for points, but could've used more from her teammates in this one.

``I left it all out there, but I didn't do enough for my team to win,'' she said. ``It hurts.''

Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton was the next-highest scorer with only 14 before she fouled out. Erin Lawless had 10 before she also fouled out in her final college game.

Jodi Howell, playing with a wrap under her left shoulder because of an injury sustained the previous round, had seven points, two assists and two steals in 17 minutes. She was obviously limited, her left arm bent and hanging limply practically whenever she didn't have the ball.

``To get to the final eight is very special for this group, having a whole new coaching staff coming in,'' said Versyp, herself a former Purdue star. ``Obviously our goal was to get to the Final Four, but I've never been so proud of a group of young women. They've set new footprints for the Purdue program.''