23-9, 10-4 Conf

Tar Heels drop Blue Devils for another ACC tournament title

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina walked away from the Greensboro Coliseum with another Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship Sunday. Sylvia Hatchell is hoping her second-ranked Tar Heels will be back here in a few weeks to play for a trip to the Final Four.

Erlana Larkins and Cetera DeGraffenreid each scored 17 points to help North Carolina beat Duke (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP) 86-73 in the title game, giving the program its fourth straight championship while almost certainly locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Rashanda McCants and LaToya Pringle each added 16 points for the top-seeded Tar Heels (30-2), who became the first to win nine ACC tournament titles. North Carolina has won 12 straight and 21 of 22 games overall, a run that its coach hopes will keep the Tar Heels close to home for the NCAA tournament's Greensboro Regional later this month.

"In the ACC, our conference, we haven't lost a game this year and won the championship," Hatchell said. "I'm hoping all that will be taken into consideration."

It might seem a little early for Hatchell to start lobbying for seeding since the field won't be announced for another week. But considering how the Tar Heels rolled through the ACC, it's understandable that they already have turned their attention to winning the national championship that has eluded them in consecutive trips to the Final Four.

Their only losses have come on the road to No. 1 Connecticut and No. 3 Tennessee, while they beat fifth-ranked Maryland in double overtime and earned a three-game sweep of the Blue Devils (23-9) to become the first team in school history to go unbeaten through the ACC regular season and tournament. They did all that despite losing graduated stars Ivory Latta and Camille Little.

"The expectation since the beginning of the year has been to learn from last year and then move on and try to win a championship," Pringle said. "We know we have the talent to do it. We've competed with the best teams in the country. We know we're just as good as Tennessee and Connecticut and all the other good teams out there."

North Carolina had beaten Duke easily this season, winning 93-76 on the road before taking an 82-51 win in the regular-season finale to give the Blue Devils their worst loss in 15 years. They had a better showing, but the Tar Heels led almost the entire way for their eighth win in 10 meetings in the series.

"I was proud of our team's fight," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We have to take it up another level in terms of just playing together and getting to the basket hard to get to the free-throw line and those things. There's some lessons here for us, definite lessons that we'll take."

Larkins, the tournament MVP, went 5-for-9 from the floor and 7-for-10 from the line to go with eight rebounds. DeGraffenreid, the 5-foot-6 freshman point guard who replaced Latta, had a career-high three 3-pointers. McCants pulled down nine rebounds despite playing with a sprained left ankle suffered in Saturday's semifinal win against No. 25 Virginia.

"Everybody's contribution is just taking the pressure off myself," said Larkins, a senior who was runner-up for ACC player of the year. "It's done a lot for the team. It's opened up things inside as well as outside."

North Carolina shot just 39 percent, but finished with 26 second-chance points and 20 offensive rebounds to go with a 34-for-44 effort from the line. The Tar Heels took their biggest lead at 72-55 on DeGraffenreid's 3-pointer with about 7 ½ minutes left, and Duke got no closer than eight points in the final minutes.

Chante Black and Jasmine Thomas each had 16 points for third-seeded Duke, which was playing in its first championship game since an 88-67 loss to the Tar Heels in 2005.

The Blue Devils certainly looked like a dispirited bunch from last week's lopsided loss when they trailed Florida State by six midway through the second half of Friday's quarterfinals. But Abby Waner led a 30-9 run that put the Blue Devils in the semifinals, where they followed up with their biggest win of the season by upsetting Maryland.

"We tried to leave the regular season in the past and tried to bring a different mentality to the ACC tournament," said Wanisha Smith, who had seven points. "They played a great game, though. They still did things that they did to us that hurt us in the last game."