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Star power mixes with youth in Boston

April 01, 2006

BOSTON

North Carolina's fun-loving Tar Heels have been running and smiling all the way to the women's Final Four, causing mayhem for their opponents at every stop.

Maryland might be here a year early, but don't try telling that to the youthful Terrapins, and Duke has some unfinished business: No titles in three previous Final Four trips.

A national championship would be the crowning achievement for Seimone Augustus' sensational career at LSU, but coming from a state still recovering from hurricane destruction, the 6-foot-1 senior knows a little something about perspective.

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"My eye's on the prize. We want to win," Augustus said. "But if we don't, I'm not going to jump off a bridge."

One of the four will claim that prize Tuesday night in the 25th NCAA championship game for women. First up are the ACC-laden semifinals at TD Banknorth Garden on Sunday night - North Carolina (33-1) vs. Maryland (32-4) and Duke (30-3) vs. LSU (31-3), the lone outsider.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is the first in the women's game to land three teams in the Final Four. LSU is keeping up appearances for the Southeastern Conference, which has had at least one team in the Final Four in all but two years.

With Augustus, North Carolina's Ivory Latta and Duke's Monique Currie, there's plenty of star power.

Augustus, the nation's leading scorer (23.0 points), is a two-time All-American and was the national player of the year last season.

Latta, also a first-team All-American, is a pint-sized, fleet-footed point guard who can blow by opponents for a layup, as she did to lift the top-ranked Tar Heels past Purdue in the regional semifinals, or stick a 3-pointer, which she did to help nail the win over Tennessee in the regional final.

She's the driving force on a team that plays with a joyful, free-spirited abandon, routinely beating opponents down the floor on offense and constantly harassing them with a trapping defense.

"My biggest challenge is to keep this team level, to keep 'em down, to keep 'em from exploding," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "This is a high-energy group. They can't wait to play. That makes it fun as a coach."

Currie is the top scorer (16.3) on the top scoring team (87.0) in the country, a second-team All-American after earning first-team honors last season.

Maryland was thought to be a year away from a big season because of its youth - two sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup. But the Terrapins have set a school record for victories while earning the program's first Final Four trip since 1989. They're the only team that has beaten North Carolina and all of their losses were to teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 at the time.

"We're battle tested," freshman Marissa Coleman said.

Here's a look at the matchups:

NORTH CAROLINA VS. MARYLAND

NORTH CAROLINA (33-1)

ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR: Beat No. 16 UC Riverside 75-51; beat No. 8 Vanderbilt 89-70; beat No. 4 Purdue 70-68; beat No. 2 Tennessee 75-63.

STARS: Though just 5-feet-6 - and even that's a stretch - Latta still shines brilliantly as she darts around the court with her boundless energy. Frontcourt starters Erlana Larkins (6-1), Camille Little (6-2) and La'Tangela Atkinson (6-2) use their athleticism to outplay bigger opponents.

COACH: Hatchell has the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament for the 14th time in her 20 years in Chapel Hill and guided them to the 1994 national title. She's 445-187 at North Carolina and 717-267 overall, including 11 years at Francis Marion.

KEY POINT: Speed, athleticism and a havoc-wreaking defense that forces 23 turnovers a game have lifted the Tar Heels to their first No. 1 ranking and made them the favorites for the title after surviving the tournament's most brutal bracket.

MARYLAND (32-4)

ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR: Beat No. 15 Sacred Heart 95-54; beat No. 7 St. John's 81-74; beat No. 3 Baylor 82-63; beat No. 5 Utah 75-65 in overtime.

STARS: Sophomore Crystal Langhorne is a second-team All-American, but she's just one scoring threat in an offense full of them. Langhorne averages 17.2 points a game, while four teammates average from 11 to 13.9 points.

COACH: Brenda Frese caused some hard feelings when she left after just one season at Minnesota, where she was The AP national coach of the year in 2002. But she saw a chance to rebuild a once-prominent program and she's on her way. The Terrapins have gone from 10 wins her first season to 18 and then to 22 before reaching this season's school-record figure.

KEY POINT: By far the youngest team in the field, the Terrapins have shown great poise and composure, not to mention a willingness to run with North Carolina. They took 85 shots in beating the Tar Heels 98-95 in overtime during the regular season and lost 91-80 in the finals of the ACC tournament.

DUKE VS. LSU

DUKE (30-3)

ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR: Beat No. 16 Southern 96-27; beat No. 8 Southern Cal 85-51; beat No. 4 Michigan State 86-61; beat No. 2 Connecticut 63-61 in overtime.

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