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Carolina shows a Latta grit in win

With 2.8 seconds left, Ivory Latta drove the lane and went in for a layup.

While she was in the air, she felt her left calf cramp. So as her North Carolina teammates were celebrating a narrow escape over Purdue in the Cleveland Regional semifinal, Latta crumpled at halfcourt.

The prognosis is that she'll be fine for Tuesday's regional final with Tennessee. But there was some doubt whether the No. 1 team in the country would reach the Elite Eight. Purdue took every punch the Tar Heels threw, and it wasn't until Latta hit that layup that North Carolina advanced with the 70-68 win before 8,428 at Quicken Loans Arena.

"I think it gave us an opportunity to show our heart," said Tar Heels sophomore forward Erlana Larkins, who led all scorers with 23 points. "It gave us a chance to show the world that we have heart and what we can do. . . . I'm glad Purdue played us that tough. It prepared us well for Tuesday."

In the second half, North Carolina led by as many as seven points, 53-46, with just over 11 minutes to play. Purdue chipped away at the lead, got physical particularly in rebounding and tied the game, 53-53, with 8:53 left. The Boilermakers then took a four-point lead, 61-57, with 4:55 left on a layup by sophomore forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton.

"After we had a seven-point lead for the next three minutes [Purdue] played on a different level," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "They were tearing rebounds out of our hands and scoring. We got the lead and they toughened up and did some things that made a difference."

North Carolina regained the lead on back-to-back jumpers by Larkins. Now, down by two, Purdue got a stop, a defensive rebound and then a jumper by Aya Traore to tie the game, 68-68, with 29 seconds left to play.

North Carolina took a timeout and a gimmick play, hatched by the players, almost worked. La'Tangela Atkinson, who has a self-professed pretty good baseball arm, cranked a pass the length of the court to a streaking Camille Little. Little caught the pass, but it was immediately broken up by Purdue's Sharika Webb, giving the Tar Heels the ball out of bounds with 19.7 seconds left.

With about seven seconds left, Latta started to make her move, using a screen set by Little to take the ball down the lane. "That was the play, I was going to drive and I thought someone would pick me up or double-team me," Latta said. "I was all set to pass it to [Larkins] but they stayed off me and I took it in."

"We're not going to point fingers [on the last play]," said Purdue coach Kristy Curry. "We were supposed to trap off the high screen and we just had a mental blip. . . . It didn't come down to the last play. It was little things that made a difference."

Latta, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and likely All-American, was actually having a pretty mediocre game. Her shot was off. She went just 2 for 8 in the first half and finished the game without a three-pointer for the first time all season.

Still, Hatchell had no qualms about putting the ball in Latta's hands for the final shot.

"She's our point guard, our leader and a winner," Hatchell said when asked why she had Latta take that shot after a poor offensive performance. "She's tough and I knew she would make a good decision and score or get to the foul line."

Latta, who finished with 19 points, eight assists and four steals, missed the official postgame news conference while she iced her calf, but affably answered questions from reporters who gathered around her.

"I was off tonight and that's all right because I trust my teammates," Latta said. "I'm sitting next to the best post player in the country in Erlana Larkins, why should I worry? I just do my thing. I can do other things and if I'm not scoring I just get the ball to my teammates. I try to make them better and they make me better every day."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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