Tar Heels lose in semis for second straight season

CLEVELAND -- After this game, even Duke fans probably felt bad for North Carolina. And that's saying something.

The Tar Heels looked to have a shot at the national championship in their sights. They were up 12 points with 8:18 left in their semifinal game Sunday. UNC guard Ivory Latta had just done her flexing routine, and Tennessee's defense appeared to be breaking down. And then…

It all fell apart for the Tar Heels. They scored just two more points the rest of the game -- both from the foul line -- and lost 56-50. Their quest for the program's second NCAA title ended, and they all appeared to be in shock afterward.

This particular group of Tar Heels has no experiential memory of what happened nine years ago -- nor should they -- but I'm sure some North Carolina fans were flashing back to the 1998 regional final against Tennessee. The Tar Heels were up by 12 points with 8:29 left in that game, but then Tennessee started making big plays, North Carolina got in foul trouble, and it all started to go bad for the Tar Heels. They couldn't stop it. Tennessee ended up winning that game by six points, too, just as it did Sunday's game, and then went on to its sixth NCAA title.

Back then, North Carolina was hoping to earn a second Final Four trip four years after having won the national championship. Instead, it would be another seven years before the Tar Heels would make it even to the Elite Eight again. They lost there to Baylor in 2005. Then last season, North Carolina beat Tennessee here in Cleveland in the regional final.

That was the Tar Heels' first victory over Tennessee in 20 years (they'd played only four times in those two decades, but coach Pat Summitt's crew had won all four). So with the Tennessee dragon slain, what got in the way of North Carolina winning a title in 2006? Maryland. Then the Terps took the championship away from Duke.

Sworn enemies as they are, frankly, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils could commiserate now. I think over the course of the past two seasons, they have been the two best teams in women's college basketball. Remember that as late as Feb. 8 this season, they were both undefeated. Duke beat Carolina that night, and stayed unbeaten until the semifinals of the ACC tournament.

Yet North Carolina's Latta and Camille Little and Duke's Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales all end their college careers without NCAA titles. Some things just don't add up.

Speaking of which … Sunday's officiating is bound to get a thumbs-down from some observers. How could two evenly matched No. 1 seeds -- both with extremely athletic players -- have such a disparity in fouls called (22 for Carolina and 14 for Tennessee) and free throws shot (6-of-8 for UNC to 20-of-26 for Tennessee)?

The Tar Heels don't know, and there won't be an easy answer for them. Starters Little and LaToya Pringle fouled out, and Latta finished with four fouls. Only one Tennessee player, Sidney Spencer, had as many as four fouls.

Little had to watch from the bench as the last five minutes of her college career slipped away.

"It was just awful; I can't believe the way it came out," Little said. "It's so disappointing. I really thought that we were going to step it up. We kept trying to think positive in the huddle; that's all Toya and I could do, was cheer our team on. Turnovers happened, we made some mistakes. But they'll learn. They have another year to play and get better."

Those who just see the Tar Heels from a distance might not have realized it, but Little has been the driving personality behind this team this year. She's a no-nonsense, serious-minded player who always told her teammates what they needed to hear.

After the game, she regretted how the Tar Heels had started out.

"The layup I missed at the beginning, a couple of putbacks we missed … we missed those shots and we should have made those," Little said. "Maybe then this [foul trouble] wouldn't have mattered."

Now, she and Latta depart. But as Little pointed out, the Tar Heels still have the nucleus of their team returning with Pringle, Rashanda McCants, Erlana Larkins, Alex Miller and Jessica Breland.

They will still be a national force next season. But on this night, there were a lot of tears and a stunned, painful silence in the North Carolina locker room.

"I feel like we just gave the game away," Latta said. "The little things -- turnovers and not getting rebounds or loose balls. I had a great college career. I'm definitely going to miss playing with these girls. It's tough that we lost, for me and Camille to go out… "

Little's thoughts echoed those of her fellow senior, Latta.

"I came to win a championship, to make an impact, to change our university," Little said. "We came twice [to the Final Four] and we didn't get it. And it hurts."

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