Whatever moxie and magic Brenda Frese's team possessed at the end of last season, North Carolina has found it. Whatever propelled Maryland to the NCAA title last April and made Kristi Toliver and her young teammates such a feel-good fable, the Tar Heels have seized that mojo and, for the moment, kept it for themselves.
A half-dozen future WNBA first-round draft picks -- easily six of the best players in the country -- waged a let-them-play scuffle last night at Comcast Center. Before the largest mob in ACC women's basketball history, the defending national champion from College Park fell to a stellar crew, 84-71, a Carolina team that appears headed down the title path this season.
Well, if 21-0 Duke doesn't get there first. It's hard to count out Maryland, either, which came from 20 points down in the second half and had the building rollicking with 3 minutes 13 seconds left. When Shay Doron hit a short pull-up in the lane and pulled the Terps to within 67-66, you would have never known about Maryland's horrendous first half or the work North Carolina put in to build such a big lead.
All that could be heard was the noise -- a throaty shrill from 17,950. It was loud at Comcast last night. Like, piercingly loud. With the number of prepubescent girls shrieking, it was unclear whether the headliner was women's hoops or Justin Timberlake.
At its highest levels, the ACC women are boffo box office. The nation's top three programs essentially play a season-long game of leapfrog. They jumped over each other last year until the Terps grabbed the trophy, knocking off Carolina in the national semifinal and Duke in the championship game.
Tobacco Road seems intent on paying the Terps back this season. Duke already drilled Maryland at Cameron Indoor Stadium by 19. Then the Tar Heels stuck it to the Terps on their home court before just the second sellout in program history.
The third sellout will be Duke on Feb. 18, which says so much about the allure of Frese's team and the rivalries they've greatly enriched.
"I think the revenge factor is so huge playing against Duke and North Carolina," Maryland junior forward Laura Harper said.
Indeed, this wasn't just a midway-point-of-ACC-play measuring stick; payback was on the minds of the Carolina players last night. Maryland beat them in the Final Four and ended the Tar Heels' 22-game unbeaten streak a year ago; Sylvia Hatchell's club wanted their pound of flesh. Ivory Latta, North Carolina's fearless 5-foot-6 senior point guard, and her athletic front line were indefatigable. Latta was deadeye from behind the arc, dropping in 6 of 10 three-pointers. She outscored Toliver and Doron by herself with 32 points while playing all 40 minutes. The woman was relentless, a speed merchant on offense and so steady at settling her team down and getting the ball inside when the game was in the balance.
Carolina's brawny Erlana Larkins employed footwork so much better than most big men in the college game. She used a plethora of up-and-under power moves for her 20 points, getting away with a hook now and then on the baseline and a few lowered shoulders to the jaws of Maryland's front line.
There seemed to be ESPN2 prime-time jitters for both teams early. Carolina ended up holding Maryland, which made almost 52 percent of its shots and came in as the nation's most accurate shooting team, to just 29.4 percent in the first half and 38.6 percent for the game.
The officiating didn't make it easy, either. Dee Kantner, the former NBA referee and now the head of WNBA officiating who is very good at her job, was part of a crew that let the game become lawless at the end of the first half.