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Heightening the drama Parker, Latta bring star power to NCAAs

One player tries to oversell her height. The other tries to undersell it.

But regardless of what the measuring tape reads, Tennessee's Candace Parker and North Carolina's Ivory Latta are at the heart of the changing landscape of women's basketball.

The two will face off in the Cleveland Regional final at Quicken Loans Arena tonight and though they have different styles both are opening up new possibilities in the women's game.

Let's start with the obvious -- Parker's dunks. She has been hounded by the dunking question since high school, when she became the first girl to win the McDonald's High School All-American slam dunk competition in 2004. When she finally dunked in a game, twice against Army in the first round of this year's NCAAs, it seemed to relieve a bit of pressure. But the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman from Naperville, Ill., remained coy about the possibility of dunking again.

"I don't go into games thinking about dunking," Parker said. "I did it for energy and excitement and to get our team going. I'm not going to say that I'm not going to do it again, but I'm not going to say that I am."

But there's much more to Parker's game than dunking. The reason why she takes over so many games is her insane versatility. She can play all five positions, and she plays all five well. She can rebound, block shots and in Pat Summitt's defense-first system is maturing into a solid defender.

"In men's basketball there are tons of guys who can dunk and the theory there is that they quit working on their skills," Summitt said. "I don't think that's going to happen with Candace Parker. She can still play all five positions. She is strong enough as an individual and as a competitor and confident enough in her game not to let this be a pressure issue."

What has been an issue, sometimes, was her height. Published reports have depicted a young Parker underselling her height to avoid being pigeonholed as a post player. Is that the case?

"I'm glad you asked that question," an animated Parker said, fending off comments from teammate Sidney Spencer. "See, so many people in the game oversell their height and I'm just trying to balance it out."

So how tall is she?

"I'm 6-4," she said.

Measuring her height is one thing; measuring her impact on the game is another. Even Latta mentioned over the weekend that Parker will change the game, echoing the sentiments of so many in the media.

"I don't feel any pressure. I think there's so much going on with women's basketball that we're all changing the game," said Parker, who went on to give a litany of current college basketball players. "Definitely all the players in this game, not just me, are changing the game."

Count North Carolina's Latta among those changing the game in her own unique way. Where Parker is versatile with amazing body control in the low post, Latta is all about moxie. An emotional leader who will frequently pop her jersey and play to the crowd, she can channel that energy to do whatever it takes to win ball games.

"Me? I don't run out of energy," Latta said. "I just love the game. I'm just a happy person."

Happy and only 5-6 -- and a generous 5-6 at that. Latta has always been the short one on the court, passed over by a lot of college coaches in the recruiting process because of her height. But her personal style, which has her flying all over the court, more than compensates for her petite stature. Her quickness in the open court causes problems for defenders while her quick hands allow her to strip opposing players in the low post, should they dare bring the ball a bit too low.

Her style, which looks out of control but really isn't, fits in nicely with the philosophy that North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell created, which also looks out of control but really isn't. The run-run-run style of the Tar Heels has the rest of women's basketball struggling to play catch-up. And just as important for the Carolina program, it's getting the interest of the general basketball public.

"Absolutely. I think we're fun to watch," Latta said. "It's fun for the fans as well as for us to play. You can play halfcourt and you need to run your offense. That's fine, but it can get boring. When you're running up and down and scoring baskets, that's fun."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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