Parker's early foul trouble comes back to haunt Vols

CLEVELAND -- Seimone Augustus drew a charge late in LSU's game against Stanford Monday that essentially clinched the Lady Tigers their third straight trip to the Final Four.

But on Tuesday, an offensive charge on Candace Parker at the beginning of the Cleveland Regional final seriously hurt Tennessee's chances of joining its SEC brethren in Boston.

After a ragged start by both teams, Tennessee took North Carolina to the wire before the Tar Heels sealed the deal at the free-throw line for a 75-63 victory, which sends the rugged region's top seed to its first Final Four since winning the NCAA title in 1994.

But truthfully, the game took a turn in UNC's favor just 4 minutes, 33 seconds into game. Parker drove to the hoop and sank a short jumper, but was whistled for an offensive charge -- her second foul. At the time, UNC led 9-8.

Throughout the game Tuesday, the highly versatile Parker showed she's capable of making plays no one else in the game can, and finished with 20 points and nine rebounds. But at times, she also very much looked like a freshman playing in her first regional final, committing eight turnovers.

And though Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt subbed Parker out only briefly after her second foul (UNC outscored the Lady Vols just 6-2 in Parker's absence), Tennessee was never the same -- and never recovered.

While Parker, Tennessee's most sure-handed ball handler, was on the bench, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell threw the Heels' 1-3-1 trap at Tennessee guards Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle. Every opponent has struggled against that trap this season. You don't think the Tar Heels will get into the passing lanes, but their quickness and athleticism wins out, just as it did Tuesday.

Then, when Parker returned to the court, North Carolina did a nice job attacking her, and 10 minutes after her second foul, Carolina had rattled off an 18-8 run (27-16 lead) while Tennessee went 4-for-14 from the field. With two fouls, Parker couldn't play her type of aggressive defense and even let the Tar Heels score almost uncontested jumpers from short range on a couple occasions. Carolina did a very good job of scoring in the paint with Parker playing cautiously.

"You don't win basketball games in the first half, but you can certainly lose one," Summitt said afterward. "We dug too deep of a hole."

Despite Parker's foul trouble and how it might have changed the complexion of the game, the Tar Heels were simply the better team. They executed very well in the first half, dishing out 15 assists on 18 field goals and making Tennessee pay for playing poorly early on.

North Carolina is one of the quickest teams our game has ever seen, and there's no way to simulate it. The Tar Heels continuously were able to score while Tennessee was still in its transition defense. Their length, though, really hampered the Lady Vols in the half court, especially on the perimeter. Zolman and Sidney Spencer were a combined 4-for-12 from 3-point range.

North Carolina also made key adjustments when it needed to, particularly on the boards. Half of Tennessee's 31 first-half points came on second chances as the Lady Vols outrebounded the Tar Heels by eight boards over the first 20 minutes. But UNC took that edge away in the second half and finished the game just four rebounds short of the Vols' 35.

The Tar Heels -- who also harassed Tennessee into 22 costly turnovers -- had great balance Tuesday. Camille Little really carried Carolina in the first half, scoring 13 of her 17 points before the break. Then in the second half, Ivory Latta stepped up. Though she struggled at times against Tennessee's zone defense -- which helped the Lady Vols pull within five with 5:53 to play -- Latta made huge plays down the stretch, including scoring nine of UNC's last 11 points.

And then there was La'Tangela Atkinson, who was huge from whistle to whistle. She came up with big scores and bigger rebounds whenever UNC needed it and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Atkinson also did a fantastic job defending Parker.

Now, the Tar Heels advance to the Final Four, where they'll meet Maryland on Sunday. The Terps are the only team to beat UNC this season, winning 98-95 in Chapel Hill on Feb. 9.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.