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Despite slow start, subpar effort, Carolina pulls off comeback

NEW ORLEANS -- Erlana Larkins doesn't mess around. She tells it like it is, and here's the way it was for North Carolina on Saturday: The Heels were in big, big trouble. Larkins struggled so much at the beginning of the game, her confidence started to fade.

"This was a crazy game," she said. "It was unbelievable. This was god-awful. I'm out there shooting air balls and going, 'Oh, my goodness. What's going on?' "

She was referring to her own performance, not that of her teammates. The Tar Heels' star, who went 2-for-12 from the field, didn't play anything like the All-American she is.

And yet, the No. 1 seed in the New Orleans Regional survived. Despite klutzy end-of-game management, missing 19 free throws, being outrebounded by 12, having just 11 assists to 25 turnovers, shooting only 40 percent from the field, seeing Louisville's Angel McCoughtry score 35 points … North Carolina is in the Elite Eight.

The Tar Heels defeated No. 4 seed Louisville 78-74 at New Orleans Arena, a game in which the Cardinals led by as much as 18 points in the first half.

Yeah, that's right -- 18 points! It was the Tar Heels' biggest deficit this season. The top-seeded team was getting buried, and the experience the Cardinals had gained playing UConn and Rutgers twice this season was paying off.

"I don't know if I've seen a team play with as much heart as Louisville, especially in the first half," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "They just took it to us. They were outhustling us and getting rebounds. I mean, they played a great, great first half."

But the Tar Heels, whose only losses this season are to Tennessee and UConn, didn't look truly worried. It was more like they were just disgusted with another poor start to a game.

"I don't know what it is, but it's flat-out terrible," Larkins said. "There's something we have to do about it, because we want to win the championship. We just can't start like this. We can't get our finger on it. There's something about that first half -- it's not really us."

It definitely wasn't against Louisville. But panic? No, the Tar Heels didn't do that.

"You find out what you're made of when your back's against the wall like this," Hatchell said. "[The Tar Heels] didn't turn their backs … in fact, they charged harder."

Senior post player LaToya Pringle led the charge, finishing with 27 points -- her third-best total this season -- and 11 rebounds.

"She did the job for us inside," Hatchell said in an epic understatement.
Without Pringle, North Carolina would be headed home now.

The Tar Heels' goal was to cut the lead to 10 by the break. They cut it to nine. Louisville scored first in the second half. But then Rashanda McCants made her first shot of the game -- a 3-pointer at the 18:50 mark -- after going 0-for-4 in the first half. And that basket seemed to change the tone of the game.

It was as if the Tar Heels could finally say, "OK, we really are wide awake now." A 3-pointer by Heather Claytor at 13:49 tied the score at 53. Louisville built its lead back up to four again, but with 8:43 left, Jessica Breland gave the Tar Heels a lead that they wouldn't give up.

Not that they didn't try.

Just kidding … kind of. The Tar Heels certainly showed a lot of gumption in this game, and Hatchell is right when she said many teams would not have rallied from the hole UNC was in during the first half.

But, jeez, the Tar Heels made it hard on themselves in the last two minutes. North Carolina was up by 10 with 2:27 left. The whole nature of the game had changed from the Tar Heels scrapping to come back, to the Cardinals trying to do that.

Had North Carolina, which entered the game shooting 69.8 percent as a team from the foul line this season, matched that standard or close to it, the Tar Heels would have comfortably finished out the victory.

Instead, in the final two minutes, they went 5-for-10 from the line, with Pringle hitting 4-of-8. Afterward, Hatchell acknowledge they'd raised her heart rate considerably. But nobody's heart was beating harder than Pringle's when she stepped to the stripe with 25.7 seconds left and UNC up by just two points.

Pringle has played in the Final Four the past two years, but she felt "the moment" this time more than any other in her career. She had missed two free throws in a row with 43 seconds left, and Louisville's Candyce Bingham had made a 3-pointer, cutting UNC's lead to 76-74.

Later in the locker room, Pringle said of her thoughts going to the line, "I hadn't been hitting the whole game, and that kind of made it worse. I was just so nervous, and I told my teammates after the game, 'That's the most nervous I have ever been in all my four years here.' "

When told she that didn't look it, Pringle laughed, the relief still washing over her.

"Poker face," said McCants, sitting next to Pringle.

She made both those free throws, and that provided the final margin. Louisville wasn't able to score again.

"If you would have told me somebody else had what our stats were, I would have thought, 'Oh, that team got blown out,' " Pringle said. "But a lot of that came from the first half. In the second half, we played a lot better basketball."

North Carolina knows repeating many of these problems Monday against No. 2 seed LSU (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) could be fatal.

"Hopefully, we won't have many more games like this," Larkins said.

Actually, it likely would take only one more, and that would be it for the Tar Heels. But Hatchell, who didn't yell at her team at halftime, saw the good part of the fact that virtually every stat except free throws attempted was not in North Carolina's favor.

Because the Tar Heels are still around.

"The good thing about our team is we've been through adversity and didn't get rattled," Pringle said. "And a lot of teams probably would have."

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