Hands on hips and head lowered, North Carolina's LaToya Pringle entered the line for end-of-the-game handshakes with Louisville looking like a defeated, exhausted women's basketball player.
"It felt like the last four minutes took an hour," Pringle said after Saturday's tightly-contested game in the round of 16.
And it's easy to understand why she felt that way with North Carolina, the top seed in the New Orleans Regional, rallying from an 18-point, first-half deficit -- its largest of the season -- to overcome fourth-seeded Louisville 78-74 and advance to the NCAA Tournament's round of eight.
North Carolina (33-2), which has won 16 in a row, will face LSU (30-5) on Monday night in the regional final. The winner goes to the Final Four.
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After trailing at halftime for just the third time this season, the Tar Heels responded in the second half at New Orleans Arena.
"I challenged them at halftime," said UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose team appeared lethargic in the first half -- for the third straight game -- and trailed 46-37 at the half. "I didn't chew them out or anything. We just talked about what we needed to do -- keep the tempo up ... because I really felt like it would pay off for us in the long run. So, we went out there in the second half and chipped away little by little."
With senior forward Erlana Larkins (seven points, 12 rebounds) struggling, Pringle scored a team-high 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. She ran off eight points during a near-eight- minute stretch where the Heels climbed from the first-half cellar to tie the score 53-all for the first time in the second half.
The Heels would take the lead for good at 8:43 of the second half as sophomore Jessica Breland (11 points) finished a fastbreak layup on an assist by freshman Cetera DeGraffenreid (13 points). They built upon that 59-57 lead with help from junior Rashanda McCants, who scored 10 of her 12 points in the second half.
North Carolina led 76-71 with 1:10 remaining. But Louisville (26-10), riding the play of gifted junior Angel McCoughtry (game-high 35 points, 13 rebounds), responded. Cardinals junior forward Candyce Bingham (17 points, 20 rebounds) drilled a 3-pointer with 28.7 seconds left, cutting the Heels' lead to 76-74.
Trapping on the baseline on the next possession, the Cardinals double-teamed and fouled Pringle, who moments before had missed two free throws and had converted just 2 of 4 on recent trips to the line.
But Pringle inhaled deeply, walked up court to the line, shook off her obvious nerves and made two free throws, sending the Heels off thankful and fortunate to make it to their fourth consecutive final eight, their hopes still alive for a third consecutive Final Four.
"I was so nervous," Pringle said. "I think that's one of the most pressured situations I've ever been in. I was so upset because I'm usually a pretty good free-throw shooter, and I was just missing all day.
"And to be up by two, I just said to myself, 'OK, at least make one and they can tie it, but four, I would love to get up by four.' So I knocked down two, and I just thanked God and got back on defense."
It was North Carolina's aggressive full-court defense that saved it from an upset at the hands of Louisville, a Big East conference team with a similar fastbreaking style that outrebounded the Heels 56-44.
The Heels, who scored 31 points off 27 Louisville turnovers, found success with a trap that befuddled the Cardinals late in the game.
"In the second half, they pressed us," Bingham said. "I don't think we handled it as well as we should."
Larkins said she realized early that it wasn't her night, battling Louisville physical forwards Chautise Wright and Keshia Hines. Larkins finished 2-of-12 from field, and was at a loss for her tough luck.
At the same time, she couldn't figure out why the Heels had fallen into a pattern of slow starts.
"It's just flat-out terrible," Larkins said. "There is something we have to do about that because we want to win a championship. We just can't start out like this. I don't know what it is."
"We can't get a finger on it. There is something about that first half that is not really us. It takes us time. We jump out on people sometimes, but for us to really heat up, it seems like we have to be out there a while."
Hatchell, who said this victory showed her team's resilience and versatility, said she didn't think her team would start slow again. She said the intensity was there, but they were unable to establish consistency against a Louisville team that was steamrolling the Tar Heels in transition.
"We didn't lose our poise," Hatchell said. "We showed a lot. Most teams wouldn't be able to come back and win like this."
Asked what the comeback meant for the team going forward, Larkins added: "Don't count us out."