Women's Final Four: Tar Heels must dance or face the music

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The Tennessee women's basketball team has not won a national title since 1998. That's an eternity for the Volunteers, considering they have won six titles in 25 years of competition.

This is the fourth Final Four for Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer but neither she, nor the Scarlet Knights, have won it all.

LSU is in its fourth consecutive Final Four, but the Tigers are seeking their first title.

All three of those teams have to be feeling a sense of urgency heading into the Final Four in Cleveland this weekend and with good reason.

The Final Four team that should be feeling the most pressure this weekend, however, is Atlantic Coast Conference champion North Carolina (34-3).

That's because this group of Tar Heels, led by seniors Ivory Latta and Camille Little, need to come up big in a Final Four once or they will be known forever as a superbly talented team that couldn't win the big one.

Well, that's how they'll be referred to in polite society. Most of the unwashed masses will simply call them "choke artists."

Perhaps, it's not fair to put so much stock into one weekend of basketball. It is hard to be the last one standing.

But that's how it is in sports at the highest level. A team is remembered for winning championships and how it performs when it gets to the big game.

It could be argued that the Tar Heels have been the best team in the past three seasons; they certainly have been the most talented.

They have size, athleticism and versatility -- they can run teams out of the gym or pound teams into submission with an impressive collection of frontcourt players.

They have a great point guard in Latta and a Hall of Fame coach, Sylvia Hatchell, who has won more than 700 games and a national title.

The Tar Heels have a record of 97-10 in the past three seasons. They have won two regular-season ACC titles, three ACC tournament titles and this is their second consecutive trip to the Final Four.

All that is impressive, yet the only thing about the Tar Heels that most observers of the women's game talk about is how poorly they have performed in pressure games the past two years.

They were a No. 1 seed in 2005, but Latta was 6 for 21 in a sloppy nine-point loss to Baylor in the regional final. That game is the last time the Tar Heels have lost to a non-ACC team, which is more evidence of their dominance.

Last year, the Tar Heels had lost only once and were the No. 1 overall seed. They advanced to the Final Four, but lost to Maryland in the semifinal by 11 in another sloppy game. Latta was 1 for 10 from 3-point range.

True, Baylor and Maryland, which North Carolina had beaten by double digits three weeks earlier in the ACC tournament, won the national title, but neither was as talented as the Tar Heels and both years the Tar Heels left us with that "what-could-have-been" feeling.

And while people respect the Tar Heels, the knock on them has been they tend to lose focus, lack a killer instinct and break down into a group of individuals when adversity strikes.

We have seen evidence that perhaps this team is different -- it rallied from a halftime deficit to beat N.C. State in the ACC championship and battled back from a large second-half deficit to beat Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- but until they win it all ...

That brings us to tomorrow.

The Tar Heels play Tennessee and, while the Vols are the flavor of the month because of who they are and the way they dominated their first four NCAA tournament opponents, here is the truth -- the mighty Vols aren't as talented as the Tar Heels.

One could see that up close and personal when both teams were playing at the Petersen Events Center for the first and second rounds. After watching both practice, then play, many people agreed that North Carolina -- from player 1 to player 10 -- was the superior team.

Tennessee has the best player in 6-foot-4 forward Candace Parker, but the Tar Heels have four tall, athletic forwards to throw at her as well as 6-1 Erlana Larkins, a relentless rebounder and a strong, physical player.

North Carolina also shouldn't be spooked by the Vols' mystique because the teams have met twice in the past 12 months -- and the Tar Heels won both games by double digits, including last year in the regional final.

There is no reason North Carolina can't, or for that matter shouldn't, win this game, then easily handle whoever wins the first game of the doubleheader tomorrow between LSU and Rutgers.

The Tar Heels are the best team, and they are playing their best basketball, particularly on defense.

There is no question the Tar Heels have accomplished a lot and deserve a lot of credit regardless of what happens these next few days.

But, and there is always a but, if they aren't cutting down the nets in Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday night they will forever be known as underachievers.

Or choke artists, if you prefer.

Related article

Women's Final Four Notebook: LSU story line still much of focus


Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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