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ND Women’s Basketball: After topping Cal, Irish get Tar Heels in NCAAs

Jay Fitzpatrick | Tuesday, March 20, 2007

PITTSBURGH – The last time the Irish took the floor, they jumped out to a 12-2 lead over eighth-seeded California and held on for a 62-59 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This time, it won’t be so easy.

Notre Dame (20-11, 10-6 Big East) continues its tournament run today against North Carolina (31-3, 11-3 ACC) – the top seed of the Dallas region – at 9:30 p.m. in the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.

The Irish have played one of the toughest schedules in the country this season, facing seven ranked teams and 12 Tournament teams. But even though the Irish have played two other one-seeds this season (a 78-54 loss at Tennessee Dec. 30 and a 64-47 loss at Connecticut Jan. 27), Irish coach Muffet McGraw still feels that they have yet to play as complete a team as North Carolina.

“[Tar Heels senior] Ivory Latta is an outstanding point guard. She’s somebody that we haven’t really seen anybody like her,” McGraw said. “But certainly [earlier Irish opponents] Rutgers and Connecticut both have the type of players that North Carolina has.”

North Carolina handily won its first round game against 16-seed Prairie View A&M Sunday, taking a 20-point lead in the first four minutes en route to a 95-38 win. The Tar Heels not only won with ease, but also saved their starters’ legs for the second round. Every Tar Heel played for 21 minutes or less. But McGraw doesn’t think the extra rest will give North Carolina any real advantage.

“I think the way they play they’re in really good shape. I think they run with everyone they play,” she said. “I don’t think that conditioning at this point in the season will be a factor.”

Regardless of the extra rest, McGraw understands the threat the Tar Heel’s speed creates and understands the danger it poses.

“I don’t think you can slow them down,” she said. “They’ve got five people that can really run the floor.”

Latta leads the North Carolina offense. She has been instrumental for the Tar Heels throughout her four years in Chapel Hill, scoring 2,225 points – the most in program history. Latta has continued to impress this season and was named first-team all-ACC and the ACC tournament MVP. On the season, Latta has scored 16.4 points and dished out 4.5 assists per game.

The Tar Heels are just as strong inside as outside, behind forward Erlana Larkins and center LaToya Pringle. Larkins has been effective on the glass at both ends, grabbing five offensive rebounds and five defensive boards per game, while scoring 13 points a night. Pringle has led the Tar Heels defensively with 3.2 blocks per game this season.

Matching up against this strong post presence will be Irish centers Melissa D’Amico and Erica Williamson. The duo has platooned at the post this season, averaging a combined 10.1 points and 11.6 rebounds at center for Notre Dame this season.

One advantage the Irish have inside against the Tar Heels inside is size. Larkins and forward Rashanda McCants are both only 6-foot-1, while Pringle is 6-foot-3. For the Irish, D’Amico is 6-foot-5, Williamson is 6-foot-4 and starting forward Crystal Erwin is 6-foot-2.

“They have some big bodies that set a lot of screens for them. They have a little more bulk than we do,” Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “But we put a lot of people in there, and we’re pretty athletic so it should be a good matchup.”

Even though McGraw claims that Notre Dame’s post speed does not match up well with North Carolina, Williamson remains undeterred.

“As athletic as their players are, it’s just going to be about how much we can bring our own game, our A game, and how much we can get in their heads,” she said. “I don’t think we’re gonna be scared of them – it’s just gonna be a very emotional game.”

Williamson is one third of Notre Dame’s freshmen-only bench, joined by guards Melissa Lechlitner and Ashley Barlow. This trio has shined so far this season and Notre Dame’s first round win over California was no exception. Williamson provided a defensive spark inside for the Irish, Barlow hustled on the glass to grab 10 boards and Lechlitner showed her experience by sinking crucial free throws at the end of the game.

“I think the more experience we had during this season is going to be more of a factor [than high school experience],” Lechlitner said. “We have played a lot of ranked teams, and we have a lot of experience beating those ranked teams this season.”

The last major test for the Irish was Sunday’s first-round game.

With half a second remaining and Notre Dame leading California 60-59, Lechlitner stepped up to seal the victory by sinking both ends of a one-and-one.

“I knew I had just missed so, I was a little upset with myself but I knew I was gonna make the next two so I wasn’t really worried about it,” the freshman said. “I just wanted to step up and knock them down.”

After Lechlitner’s free throws, there was not enough time for a final desperation shot for the Golden Bears, giving the Irish the win.

Notre Dame was confident down the stretch and nailed key shots to stay ahead of California. Irish guard Tulyah Gaines pushed the Irish ahead with a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining to give the Irish a four-point lead. But the Golden Bears fought back when guard Lauren Greif made all three of her free throws to bring her team to within a point with only seven seconds left.

The Irish moved the ball up the court quickly, keeping the ball carrier away from California defenders and avoiding any fouls. Despite the Golden Bears’ best efforts, they could not foul the Irish until it was too late.

Despite the close finish, the Irish led for the first three quarters of the game by as many as 11 points, until Golden Bears forward Krista Foster hit one of her two 3-pointers to give California a 46-45 lead.

In the second half, Foster was key to the Golden Bears’ comeback, grabbing six boards and playing tough defense to force stops.

“She’s like a spark, she’s always created that role for us, being that sixth man and being that spark off the bench,” Golden Bears head coach Joanne Boyle said. “She’s owned it, and that’s what we need.”

Even after California grabbed a two-point lead with a jumper from forward Devanei Hampton, Notre Dame stayed focus and fought back. The Irish quickly went on a 10-1 run to stretch the lead back to 58-51, keyed by a jumper from guard Charel Allen to give Notre Dame a two-possession lead at 56-51.

Two days later, the Irish have a new challenge. Regardless of North Carolina’s speed or ranking, the Irish are confident they can compete against Dallas’ top seed.

“We just have to play our best and play our hardest,” Barlow said. “I think if we come out and play the way we know how we can play we can do anything. As long as the team believes we can accomplish anything.”