March 21, 2007
PITTSBURGH (AP) – The unthinkable upset not only seemed possible, it was beginning to look likely. Notre Dame sensed it was happening, and North Carolina’s players were looking tentative and worried.
And then the Tar Heels staged a game-saving 15-0 rally that came out of nowhere and saved the season of one of the prime contenders for the NCAA women’s championship.
LaToya Pringle led the frantic comeback and Ivory Latta made six free throws in the final minute as top-seeded North Carolina avoided the upset and rallied to defeat Notre Dame 60-51 Tuesday night in the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament.
Latta scored 17 points despite an off shooting night – 4-of 12 – and Pringle added 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Tar Heels (32-3) as the nation’s highest-scoring team was slowed considerably but still managed to recover after trailing 38-31 with 13 1/2 minutes remaining.
“Survive and advance,” was North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell’s three-word assessment of the Heels’ best second-half comeback all season.
Charel Allen, playing a few miles from her Pittsburgh-area hometown, scored 21 points as the Irish (20-12) threatened to pull off one of the biggest victories in school history only to falter down the stretch while being outscored 27-10.
Just when the Tar Heels looked to be in serious trouble, after Allen hit a 3-pointer from several feet beyond the arc to make it 41-33, they regrouped and rallied to seize a 48-41 lead.
“We couldn’t score,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “They started getting rebounds, we got into foul trouble. We knew they would make a run, they’re a great team and we knew it would happen, but if we could have scored one or two baskets that would have given us a little confidence at the defensive end.”
Pringle scored on consecutive possessions during the 15-0 run and, after the Irish cut it to 50-46, blocked an Allen shot before scoring herself at the other end. Latta then sealed it with her free throw shooting.
Hatchell made several adjustments, against the advice of her assistant coaches, before a comeback that sets up a round of 16 game Sunday in Dallas against George Washington (28-3).
“They were walking the ball up the floor and that drives me crazy,” Hatchell said. “My assistant coaches were saying, `No, no, no,’ but I wanted to pick up the intensity and mix it up defensively.”
Pringle said the Tar Heels had no choice.
“We just weren’t playing hard,” she said. “We told each other we had to win or go home.”
The Fighting Irish have a history of NCAA tournament upsets, going 2-2 against top-seeded teams, including a 1998 win over top-seeded Texas Tech when the Irish were ninth-seeded – just as they were this year.
But taking down North Carolina hardly seemed possible for this team, which finished fifth in the Big East, lost its only conference tournament game to DePaul and carried a three-game losing streak into the NCAA tournament. The Irish weren’t ranked in the final Associated Press poll, while North Carolina was No. 2.
McGraw’s team did exactly what she wanted it to do for the first 30-plus minutes, staying close early by never letting the Tar Heels run the floor or mount any extended runs like they did in opening a 42-point halftime lead Sunday over Prairie View A&M.
North Carolina was averaging a Division I-leading 85.7 points, with a 31 points per game victory margin, yet led only 29-28 at halftime.
The Irish not only hung around, they scored six consecutive points to take the 38-31 lead that put worried looks on the faces of several Tar Heels players. On the Heels’ next possession, Latta showed that concern by putting up a hurried, off-balance shot.
“I always felt confident,” said Allen, who was cheered on by hundreds of fans from her Monessen, Pa. hometown. “But we didn’t come out on top.”
Erlana Larkins started the 15-0 run with a putback, Jessica Breland made two free throws, and Latta and Pringle each had a pair of baskets ahead of Miller’s 3-pointer – just the kind of flurry McGraw wanted to prevent.
“LaToya likes being a support role most of the time, but Erlana wasn’t playing her usual game even though she had 10 rebounds, and LaToya really came through for us,” Hatchell said.