Tar Heels turn back time; Lady Vols left hurting

Folks might forget that Tennessee kids can hurt bad, too. When you're the Orange Crush, you win most of the time, so you're the "bad guys" and the bullies. Everyone but your own is always rooting against you. You never get to be the spunky underdog. Never.

Nope, not even when you're the No. 2 seed going against the No. 1 in a regional final that both teams probably feel should not have happened.

But it did, and Tennessee seniors Shanna Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker ended their careers without a title.

Instead, Ivory Latta and the rest of the North Carolina Tar Heels will go to Boston, where they'll meet a very familiar foe: Maryland. It's the rematch of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title game, won by the Tar Heels. But Maryland is also the only team that defeated North Carolina this season.

For us outsiders, North Carolina's victory Tuesday night in the Cleveland Regional final went as expected only in terms of seeding. At least, that's how I felt. Tennessee carried all of the winning history into this game, having a 12-1 record against the Tar Heels and winning both previous NCAA Tournament matchups.

Of course, that all might have meant something for us prognosticators, but it did not mean squat to the current Tar Heels. What do any of them know or remember about 1998, when North Carolina had a double-digit lead on Tennessee in the Elite Eight, but lost it all in a 76-70 defeat?

For today's Tar Heels, you might as well be talking about the days of black-and-white television and rotary telephones and record players. They came into this game having lost just once this year, and feeling very much like they had already survived (vs. Purdue) the only scare they planned on having on the road to the Final Four.

And, indeed, even when things got perilously tight in the second half, what did North Carolina's Latta do? Just dribbled right down to the end of the shot clock and nailed an NBA-range 3-pointer.

There would be no repeat of 1998 for North Carolina. And, just the same, no repeat of that glorious comeback for Tennessee, the "scariest" of the team's 39 wins that year.

Weird how all of this history stuff works out, isn't it? After Tennessee finished the perfect season and won its third consecutive national
championship at Kansas City's Kemper Arena, the big question was just how long this Tennessee dynasty would continue chugging onward. Who was ever going to beat these guys?

Well, it turned out that Duke did, in 1999, on what had to be the worst shooting night in Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw's life. That Elite Eight loss seemed sad for Tennessee from a historical perspective -- no four-in-row glory for one of the game's all-time greatest -- but even so, nobody then could have ever guessed seven more years would pass and Tennessee still would not have won another title.

Some injuries, bad luck (relatively speaking, when you're Tennessee) and a whole lot of Connecticut are the biggest things that have gotten in the way of coach Pat Summitt and her seventh national title.

Tuesday, though, it was North Carolina's team speed, quickness and … (could it really be?) the fact that the Heels showed greater composure than Tennessee. Even the biggest Carolina fan would not, over the years, have used "composed" to describe just about any season's Tar Heels team.

Yet, you can say that about this group. Latta led the way with 20 points and nine assists. La'Tangela Atkinson had a double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds. Camille Little added 17 points. The 12-point edge the Tar Heels had at halftime stayed that way.

As for whether Tennessee and North Carolina "should" have been meeting … well, we've all complained about that. But … one could also argue that it isn't like the other three Final Four teams -- LSU, Duke and Maryland -- would have been easy for Tennessee to beat, either. This is a pretty impressive Final Four.

Still … back in the fall, were you to walk into a Tennessee practice, you would have wondered who in the world could beat this team. That's what I thought when I went to see practice one afternoon.

But … Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood left. Alexis Hornbuckle got hurt. Candace Parker was absolutely splendid as a freshman, and other players did contribute a lot. Plenty of Tennessee kids had contributions at key times. But, ultimately, it wasn't enough.

So Zolman and Fluker finish with three Final Four trips, one Elite Eight … but no title. Those are still some darn fine careers. But you know it's not enough if you're a Tennessee kid.

And it hurts just as much for them as anyone else.

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