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Tar Heels assert their will Swarming defense stops Tennessee NCAA Tournament: North Carolina punches its ticket to the Final Four

As the clock expired, Ivory Latta looked over to the stands and flexed her muscles. She was directing them to Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

"We were flexing at each other," Latta said with her trademark wide smile. "Of course, I'm bigger."

Well, Latta and the Tar Heels are bigger, stronger and more intense on defense than perhaps any other women's basketball team this season.

If defense does indeed win championships, the rest of the Final Four field had better be wary.

North Carolina's suffocating defense frustrated a talented Tennessee offense and the top-seeded Tar Heels (33-1) walked out of Quicken Loans Arena with a 75-63 win over the No. 2 Lady Vols (31-5) in the Cleveland Regional final Tuesday night before 9,091.

North Carolina will play Maryland in the Final Four on Sunday evening in Boston. Duke plays LSU in the other semifinal.

"From Day One, that's the way we've played," North Carolina's Camille Little said. "We've played defense like that all year and we planned to do it against Tennessee. We knew we had to be aggressive in this game. Putting pressure on the ball was important for us. It makes it difficult for the guards to get the ball inside."

The Tar Heels' defense didn't let Tennessee breathe let alone get off a decent shot in the first half. The score was tied only once -- at 4-4 -- and North Carolina never relinquished the lead. A tenacious half-court trap that highlighted the Tar Heels' quickness forced 12 first-half turnovers by the La dy Vols and generated eight steals.

With Candace Parker on the bench for 3 1/2 minutes in the first half after two quick fouls, Tennessee was unable to find any groove, looking disorganized and rushed on offense and clearly ineffective on defense. It led to a 43-31 halftime deficit.

"You can't win games in the first half but you certainly can lose them," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "We just dug ourselves too deep a hole in that first half. In the second half we played them even but in that first half we were not comfortable."

The Tar Heels took Tennessee completely out of its comfort zone. Senior point guard Shanna Zolman struggled to even keep possession of the ball. When that's the case, forget trying to find anyone inside.

"I give [North Carolina] all the credit for doing that," Zolman said. "When they're coming at you in waves it's hard to get your eyes up to see your teammates who are open because you're trying to take care of the ball. We allowed our offensive breakdowns to affect our defensive play. We didn't play Tennessee defense in the first half."

In the second half, the Lady Vols became more aggressive on the defensive end and changed things up offensively by having Parker bring the ball up the floor.

Slowly, Tennessee chipped away at the lead, got the ball inside and earned trips to the free-throw line. The Lady Vols made their move when Zolman hit a three-pointer with 7:10 left to make it 59-50. A full-court press caused some Tar Heels turnovers, and Tennessee capitalized with jumpers by Zolman and Parker to cut the lead to 59-54, with 5:54 to play.

But North Carolina was able to regroup, then counterpunch. When a layup by Parker made it 64-58 with just under four minutes to play, it was Latta who came up with the big play. As the shot clock was winding down, Latta backed the ball up, then spotted up for an open three-pointer to push the lead back to nine, 67-58.

"Coach told me to back it out and nobody came out to play defense on me," Latta said. "I thought they'd come out to play me, but they didn't so I took the shot. It was a dagger and I hit it."

Latta made six free throws in the final minute to seal the win.

"We felt like we [gained momentum], but every time we came at them, they answered," Parker said.

Latta, who was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player, played all 40 minutes and finished with 20 points, nine assists and four steals. Parker had 20 points and nine rebounds but committed eight turnovers for Tennessee.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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