It’s the Fi­nal Four, but Two Stand Out

Ten­nessee-UNC Tilt Over­shad­ows LSU’s Game With Rut­gers

The Washington Post Sunday - - Spring Training - By Marc Carig

CLEVE­LAND, March 31 — Ten­nessee’s Can­dace Parker sat in front of her locker at Quicken Loans Arena on Satur­day, wear­ing a jacket that fea­tured the pro­gram’s fa­mous orange, a color that for more than two decades has rep­re­sented roy­alty in women’s col­lege bas­ket­ball.

A throng of peo­ple gath­ered around Parker, the best player on one of the best teams in the coun­try. Just a sopho­more, the first-team all-Amer­i­can has grown com­fort­able in th­ese sit­u­a­tions.

“It’s a mar­quee matchup and it’s great for the game of women’s bas­ket­ball,” Parker said of her team’s show­down with North Carolina on Sun­day. “Th­ese are the top two teams in the coun­try, hands down.”

While the Tar Heels and the Lady Vols are meet­ing in the semi­fi­nals, the matchup looks more like a na­tional cham­pi­onship game. Both teams fea­ture first-team all-Amer­i­cans, leg­endary head coaches and tra­di­tions that run deep.

“I’ve never played in one my­self, so I don’t know the cal­iber of a na­tional cham­pi­onship game,” North Carolina for­ward Er­lana Larkins said. “But I think it has na­tional cham­pi­onship game ten­den­cies — great coaches that have a great legacy, that have been coach­ing awhile. Great play­ers.”

The Tar Heels and Lady Vols are locked in what’s be­come a bud­ding ri­valry. North Carolina has won the past two meet­ings, once in the NCAA round of eight last year and again in the reg­u­lar sea­son in De­cem­ber. A third win would deny Ten­nessee and Coach Pat Sum­mitt a chance at their first ti­tle since fin­ish­ing a string of three straight cham­pi­onships in 1998. North Carolina is try­ing to win its first ti­tle since 1994.

Both teams en­ter with enough tal­ent to end those ti­tle droughts.

“Peo­ple con­sider us to be the top two teams in the na­tion,” said North Carolina all-Amer­i­can point guard Ivory Latta, one of the coun­try’s most dan­ger­ous of­fen­sive play­ers. She leads the Tar Heels in scor­ing (16.3 points per game).

“It’s go­ing to be great for the fans, both univer­si­ties and also for women’s bas­ket­ball,” Latta added. “You have two great teams with sim­i­lar styles try­ing to get the win.”

Mean­while, Parker’s sopho­more sea­son has gone so well that she has had to defuse talk of her leav­ing early for the WNBA. If she de­clared for the draft, she likely would be se­lected early in the first round. The ver­sa­tile 6-foot-4 star leads Ten­nessee in scor­ing (19.9) and re­bound­ing (9.8).

The hype around the UNC-Ten­nessee game has threat­ened to over­shadow the day’s other matchup, when party-crash­ing Rut­gers takes on Louisiana State.

Third-seeded LSU reached the na­tional semi­fi­nals for the fourth straight year de­spite the sud­den res­ig­na­tion of coach Pokey Chat­man, who stepped down on March 7 amid al­le­ga­tions of im­proper con­duct with a for­mer player. With­out their coach, the Tigers have been led by first-team all-Amer­i­can for­ward Sylvia Fowles, who helped lead the team to a vic­tory against Ten­nessee in the SEC tour­na­ment. Like Parker, Fowles also has had to de­flect re­cent talk of turn­ing pro early.

“I don’t think it would be wise to just over­look this game,” Tigers guard Erica White said. “But hey, if peo­ple choose to do that, that’s fine.”

Mean­time, with a ros­ter de­void of a su­per­star, No. 4 Rut­gers is try­ing to be­come the low­est seed to win a na­tional cham­pi­onship. The Scar­let Knights ad­vanced with a round of 16 vic­tory against Duke, a No. 1 seed that had beaten North Carolina and Ten­nessee this sea­son.

“We came this far,” Rut­gers guard DeeDee Jerni­gan said. “We didn’t come this far just to say we made it to the Fi­nal Four. We want the whole thing.”

While the Rut­gers-LSU game may be as com­pelling, it doesn’t fea­ture the star power of the Ten­nessee-North Carolina matchup, which pits two teams ranked in the top three of both the As­so­ci­ated Press and USA To­day/Coaches’ polls. Nev­er­the­less, North Carolina’s Camille Lit­tle re­fuses to look ahead.

“You def­i­nitely can’t over­look any­body,” Lit­tle said.

BY MIKE STONE — REUTERS

There are two teams re­ceiv­ing much at­ten­tion at the Fi­nal Four — North Carolina and Ivory Latta, above, and Ten­nessee.

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