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Monday, March 31, 2008
Updated: April 1, 4:28 PM ET
North Carolina's loss means end of the (college) road for Larkins, Pringle

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Two years ago in Boston, North Carolina's Erlana Larkins played one of the best games of her career on her birthday, April 2. But it wasn't enough, as Maryland won that NCAA semifinal.

Last year, Larkins' birthday was the day after the Tar Heels let a lead get away against Tennessee in the Final Four, losing 56-50.

Erlana Larkins
Erlana Larkins left it all on the court Monday, ending her career two games too early.

Wednesday, Larkins will turn 22, and she again will not be in much of a mood to celebrate.

Tears welled in her eyes from the end of Monday's game here -- another 56-50 loss, this time to LSU -- through the news conference … and they were still there as she stood in North Carolina's locker room.

"It's going to be hard going back to [Chapel Hill] and knowing today was the last day in this uniform. But I can't dwell on it," she said, her voice wavering, because she knows there's no way not to dwell at least a little when you reach the end of something so important to you.

"The turnaround time is not that much, and I have to get ready for a professional career."

Larkins is from Riviera Beach, Fla., and has known LSU's Sylvia Fowles, who is from Miami, since their days in Florida AAU basketball. Larkins stood trying to compose herself after the final horn blew on Monday at New Orleans Arena, then made her way down the line for the postgame handshake.

But Fowles was doing a television interview, so she wasn't in the handshake line. Larkins went over to the LSU bench area and waited for Fowles' interview to finish so she could congratulate her. They hugged each other -- one senior going to the Final Four again, one not getting the opportunity.

"I just went over there and told her, 'Represent not only your university, but make back home mighty proud,'" Larkins said. "Go win it for us."

The Tar Heels have had to live vicariously the past three years -- because each time, their season has ended at the hands of the team that went on to win the national championship: Baylor (2005), Maryland (2006) and Tennessee (2007).

"If LSU does go on to a national championship, I guess we're like the good-luck charm for the NCAA [tournament]," LaToya Pringle said, providing a moment of levity in a sad news conference. "That's the way it kind of feels."

Both Larkins and Pringle, who are disappointed as seniors, do have something to look forward to in Tampa, as Larkins alluded to earlier: the WNBA draft. Larkins has been a top prospect for a while now, and Pringle has definitely proved herself to be one this season, too.

Pringle was the top Tar Heel at this regional, with a combined 48 points and 22 rebounds in UNC's two games in New Orleans.

But Larkins, who played through January and February with a broken left hand, struggled offensively in this regional. She was 2-of-12 from the field for seven points against Louisville, and then 2-of-11 for five points -- all in the first half -- against LSU. Both games, though, she rebounded well with 12 and 11 boards, respectively.

Larkins and Pringle did what they could against Fowles, but her size and strength -- and her ability to go get the ball -- ended up being too much for the Tar Heels. Because in this matchup, 56 points was enough to beat them, which UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said was like "a nightmare."

Carolina's perimeter attack didn't really exist; the Tar Heels made just one of eight 3-point attempts, that by Rashanda McCants in the last minute of the game. They came into Monday's contest averaging four 3-pointers per game. So all the more pressure was on the interior players to score.

"It's very deflating when you're trying to give it all you have [defensively] and you have to come down on offense and work [that hard] also," Larkins said. Of LSU's ability to lob into Fowles, she added, "They'd throw the ball, and it looks like it's going out of bounds. And she's still grabbing it.

"There was nothing I could do. She did what she could do, and her teammates did a great job of getting her the ball."

Like all seniors who depart college ball without winning it all -- and what a list of great players that is -- Larkins was aching about having to cross this particular finish line Monday.

"Overall, our career was very successful," she said, speaking of herself and Pringle. "But we still leave this program without a championship. So that's the hardest part."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.