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A Blue Streak

March 20, 2006
March 20, 2006

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March 20, 2006

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A Blue Streak

The engine that drives North Carolina's frenetic offense and high-pressure D, pint-sized point guard Ivory Latta is the key to a championship

Here's somethingyou might be surprised to learn about North Carolina junior Ivory Latta, thewide-eyed, hyperkinetic 5'6" point guard who pushes the ball for the No. 1women's basketball team in the country: She hates to run. "It's true-Inever ran track and only did cross-country because my dad made me," saysLatta, with a throaty cackle. "I hate sprinting. But when I have a ball inmy hand, it's a different story."

This is an article from the March 20, 2006 issue Original Layout

When Latta hasthe ball in her hands, North Carolina has the fastest, most electrifyingoffense in the nation. The transition game, which Duke coach Gail Goestenkorscompares to a feeding frenzy, is particularly relentless. "They're pushingthe ball on makes, misses, rebounds," says Goestenkors, who in practice hastried to simulate Carolina's pressure and speed by pitting five of her playersagainst seven male players. (It hasn't helped; the Blue Devils have lost fivestraight to the Tar Heels.) "Their posts run the floor so well, it's hardto keep up with them. They're constantly attacking you."

When Lattadoesn't have the ball in her hands ... well, wait two seconds and she will.Thanks largely to an effective 1-3-1 trap defense, Carolina averages 13 stealsper game (second in the country) while opponents commit 23.4 turnovers. Sixplayers average at least one steal a game with Latta, who shares the team leadof 2.3 with sophomore center Erlana Larkins, the most brazenly larcenous of thebunch. In the ACC championship game against Maryland on March 5, the 130-poundLatta-who bench-presses 175 pounds, squats 300 and is pound-for-pound thestrongest player on the team-twice forcibly ripped the ball out of the hands ofa much bigger Terrapin and converted those steals into layups.

Wake Forest coachMike Peterson says the Tar Heels' defense reminds him of the 40 Minutes of Hellstyle of Nolan Richardson's early 1990s Arkansas teams, except that Carolina'sis "much more disruptive. They are so completely different than any otheropponent. Against other teams you're going to have an opportunity to run youroffense. Against [the Tar Heels], you don't."

After avengingtheir only loss of the season by beating Maryland 90-81 in the conference titlegame-that was Latta doing chin-ups on the rim afterward-the Tar Heels enter theNCAA tournament with the best record (29-1) and the overall No. 1 seed. But toreach the Final Four in Boston on April 2 they will have to negotiate the mostdifficult region (Cleveland) in the tournament. If form holds, a North Carolinawin over 16th seed UC Riverside (16-14) on Saturday in Nashville would set up asecond-round pairing with No. 8 seed Vanderbilt on the Commodores' home floor,followed by games in Cleveland against fourth seed Purdue and second seedTennessee, the SEC champion (or perhaps third seed Rutgers, the Big Eastregular-season champ). If the Tar Heels reach Boston, they should findthemselves in familiar company-bet on fellow ACC powers Duke and Marylandgetting there too. Surprising Oklahoma, the first team to go undefeated in Big12 play, should make it there too.

What gives theTar Heels their best chance to win it all is their offensive diversity. Thoughthey prefer to score in transition (getting 23.9 points a game off turnovers),they're much more effective in the half-court this season than they were inrecent years. North Carolina runs three variations of their motion offense,which can originate with Latta or Larkins, a 6'1" center who can score inthe low post, pass out of double-teams and hit the three, or junior CamilleLittle, a 6'2" point forward who averages 11.8 points and 5.2 rebounds andis one of six defense-stretching Tar Heels who have hit 19 or morethree-pointers this year. Latta leads the team with an 18.4 scoring average,but overall the offense is balanced (seven players have led the team or tiedfor the lead in scoring) and deep (eight players average at least 10 minutes agame, and three others play at least eight). "The way we play, we have tosubstitute a lot," says coach Sylvia Hatchell, who's in her 20th year inChapel Hill and her 14th NCAA tournament. "The more kids get to play, thehappier they are."

Regardless of whois on the floor, tempo is critical-a philosophy that's drilled into theCarolina players (even in the weight room, where every one of their liftingsets is timed). Late in games, when an opponent is whipped, the Tar Heels pushthe ball even harder. "We go to a higher gear," says Latta. "That'sthe beautiful part."

This year's teamis even faster and more aggressive than the 1993-94 squad that featured futureOlympic sprint star Marion Jones, a freshman, at point guard. In what Hatchellcalled "the second-greatest miracle to take place on Easter Sunday,"forward Charlotte Smith hit a three-point shot with .7 of a second left to beatLouisiana Tech 60-59 in the NCAA final. Since then, the Tar Heels have been aregular presence in the Top 10, but until last March, when they fell toeventual champion Baylor in the Tempe Regional final, they had advanced as faras the Elite Eight only once, in 1998. "We were good, but I wanted to getbetter," says Hatchell, a Hall of Famer. Moreover, she adds, "I wantedto fall in love with the game again."

Three years agoHatchell scaled back her involvement in the various local church and communitycommittees that were taking too much time away from basketball and startedworking summer camps around the country, in addition to her own, to reconnectwith the game. She picked the brains of former NBA coach Hubie Brown, formerOregon and Tennessee men's coach Jerry Green, North Carolina high schoolcoaching legend Howard West and Carolina men's coach Roy Williams, amongothers, incorporating elements of their offensive and defensive game plans intoher own.

At the same timeshe continued to recruit versatile, fleet-footed athletes such as Latta, whoalso leads the team with 5.1 assists per game. "A lot of the reason we'veadded the things we have into our system is because we have a player likeIvory, who is so quick and can handle the ball so well," says Hatchell."A lot of people wouldn't recruit her because she's so little. I heard,'People will post her up,' and 'You're going to have mismatches.' Well, ifyou're running from foul line to foul line, that's not going tomatter."

The result ofHatchell's alchemical experiment with speed and style is a high-risk,high-octane, highly entertaining game. "I don't like it when peoplestereotype women's basketball, and I don't like 40-point games," saysHatchell. "I want it to be fun for the players and exciting for the fans. Iwant people to say, 'I love watching your team play!'"

In fact she hearsthat a lot. Memphis men's coach John Calipari phoned her the day after Carolinawon at then No. 1 Duke in January and said, "Your team plays like I want myteam to play!" Hatchell also hears from coaching friends who tell her,"Y'all make me nervous. I couldn't coach your team. How do you stand itwhen they get a little out of control?"

"Our style isnot for everybody," says Hatchell, "but it works for us."

Says Little,"We're all having fun. The thing Coach Hatchell always says before we hitthe floor is, 'Play hard, play smart, play together, but most of all, havefun.' And we do."

That's anotherthing that makes some of Hatchell's coaching counterparts nervous: Her style isirresistible to players. During a recruiting trip earlier this season Hatchellsat next to the coach of another Top 10 team at a high school game. As thefast-paced game ended, the other coach, whom Hatchell declined to name, said toher, "Girl, you need to slow that team down. You've got every kid inAmerica wanting to play like North Carolina."

Says Hatchell, "I want people to say, 'I LOVEWATCHING your team play!'"
PHOTOPhotograph by Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.com PATHFINDER
The 5'6" Latta attacks the net with a fearlessness that belies hersize.
TWO PHOTOSBILL FRAKES (2)JOY RIDE Hatchell (left) rediscovered her passion for the game, and now players like Little (20) follow the coach's mantra to play hard, play smart--but most of all, have fun.PHOTOCHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP SCARLETFEVER
Pondexter and third-seeded Rutgers want a date with the Tar Heels inCleveland.