GREENSBORO, N.C. -- When North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell sent backup guard Latifah Coleman to the scorer's table with 6 minutes, 16 seconds left in Saturday's game against Maryland, she did so with one bit of advice: "Be a leader."
The 5-foot-9 sophomore entered the ACC tournament semifinal with a season average of 3.4 points per game. She had played only a couple of minutes in Friday's quarterfinal win over Boston College. And in the first half on Saturday, Coleman had gone 0-for-1 from the floor with two turnovers in just seven minutes. So it's not unreasonable to think that when Hatchell sent the young guard into the biggest game of her life, she was hoping only for a few minutes of mistake-free ball -- and maybe some really good defense.
Less than 15 seconds later, Coleman was burying a 3-pointer from the right wing to tie the game. A few moments after that, she was catching the ball in the left corner, driving the baseline and scoring at the rim to put the Tar Heels ahead for the first time since the opening minutes.
In fact, Coleman's driving bucket capped a furious second-half comeback by the Tar Heels, who had trailed Maryland by 14 at the half. North Carolina had played so poorly in the first 20 minutes that most probably had already penciled in the "L.''
Two crunch-time buckets would be enough to sing Coleman's praises, wouldn't it? Sophomore steps onto the hardwood inside the Greensboro Coliseum -- the long-time home of this ACC tournament -- and contributes to her team's 72-65 come-from-behind win over second-seeded (and No. 10-ranked) Maryland? South Carolina native, known more as a defensive player, ignites offensively and sparks her third-seeded Tar Heels to victory, advancing to the conference tournament finals to face top-seeded Duke on Sunday (2 p.m. on ESPN2).
Seems worthy of praise.
Of course, Coleman was just getting started. After that baseline drive, she stepped in and knocked down a little midrange jumper with 3:44 left on the clock. She hit a free throw a few seconds later. With 2:27 remaining, she broke the game's last tie with a nifty little floater from the right side, then put her team up three, 64-61, with another jumper at the 1:45 mark. Coleman then hit 3 of 4 free throws to seal the deal.
When the buzzer sounded, she had scored 17 second-half points, including 15 in the final 6:03 -- every single one of them important for the win.
"I've never played like this before -- at least not at the college level," Coleman told espnW just minutes after the game. "I knew I had to take over. Everything just started flowing for me. I got in such a good rhythm."
You didn't need a magnifying glass to spot the swagger that crept into Coleman's game. Each made basket seemed to increase her confidence, until she was hitting shots that she probably wouldn't even normally attempt. When Maryland first intentionally fouled, stopping the clock with :32 left, Coleman kept going after the whistle, dribbling all the way to the rim, then taking off as if about to tomahawk slam. The North Carolina family section, knowing victory was in the bag, cheered and laughed.
"She's really a better defensive player than an offensive player, because she's so quick and athletic," Hatchell said. "But we needed her, and it was an opportunity for her to help the team. This is not an anomaly, though. This is her. She is really that good -- at least she has the potential to be that good."
Maryland had built its lead on the strength of star forward Alyssa Thomas, who finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. North Carolina really didn't have a solution for how to guard Thomas. In less than one minute of the first half, Thomas faced three North Carolina defenders.
The first was 5-9 guard Brittany Rountree. Thomas, spotting a mismatch, immediately sucked down to the low block. Thomas fought to hold position against Rountree, then demanded the ball. As the pass to Thomas was in flight, Rountree was called for holding. Thomas took the ball out of bounds and, upon inbounding, noticed that Waltiea Rolle, the Tar Heels' lanky 6-6 center, was now guarding her. Thomas sprinted to the top of the key, collected the ball and cleared everyone out of the way. She made one quick move and blew past Rolle, who was left with only one option: foul.
After those two quick whistles, North Carolina switched 5-10 senior guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt onto Thomas, the ACC's leading rebounder despite standing at only 6-2, and also clearly its most versatile player.
Because of Thomas, Maryland is fascinating to watch. In case you haven't heard, the Terrapins lost four players to knee injuries, including guards Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley. So everything the Terps have accomplished this season is patchwork, with coach Brenda Frese constantly filling holes, getting the most out of players who entered the season thinking they would be buried deep on the bench. Because of this, Thomas ends up spearheading nearly every offensive possession -- a left-handed forward attacking the basket as if running downhill.
And in the first 20 minutes, North Carolina couldn't solve the puzzle caused by Thomas' versatility. But as the game wore on, Thomas began shouldering more and more of the load. She never looked exhausted by it, but occasionally frustrated, as every possession came down to her trying to create.
Meanwhile, on the other end, Coleman was bursting onto the scene -- an offensive threat the Terrapins did not game plan for. In the postgame news conference, Frese was asked, "When a player comes out of nowhere and has a great few minutes, what do you tell your team about what kind of adjustments you need to make?"
"She caught fire with that first three and really gained confidence from there,'' she answered. "That's obviously a luxury you have when you have a bench like Carolina does, figuring out which player has the hot hand. Obviously she did today."