It’s the Final Four, but Two Stand Out
Tennessee-UNC Tilt Overshadows LSU’s Game With Rutgers
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.
There are two teams receiving much attention at the Final Four — North Carolina and Ivory Latta, above, and Tennessee.