Once again, Ivory Latta was headed to the locker room way too early in a late-round NCAA tournament game, North Carolina's hopes possibly going with her.
Only this time, Latta came back. And the Tar Heels never wavered.
Latta limped off a few minutes before halftime, but returned to help Erlana Larkins lead a strong start to the second half that top-seeded North Carolina rode to a 84-72 victory over Purdue in the finals of the Dallas Regional on Tuesday night, clinching a spot in the Final Four for the second year in a row.
Last year's title shot was ruined when Latta hurt her knee early in a loss to Maryland in the national semifinal. Now a senior who has vowed to do whatever it takes to go out with a championship, she'll have a few days to recover before facing fellow No. 1 seed Tennessee in Cleveland on Sunday.
Larkins had a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds as the Tar Heels (34-3) set a school record for wins and kept alive their chances for a second crown. Latta had 21 points, her most this tournament, plus her usual leadership and spunky attitude - or Latta-tude, as it's called in Chapel Hill.
The Boilermakers (31-5) were within 64-60 with 6:47 left when star Katie Gearlds fed Jodi Howell for a layup, forcing a timeout and drawing a scream and an exultant jab from Gearlds. After Latta missed a 3-pointer on the other end, Gearlds put up a 3 of her own and got nothing but air. She couldn't help but laugh and pat her chest, saying "My bad" as she looked at the bench.
North Carolina answered with a 7-0 rally led by Larkins. She started it with a 3-point play, then assisted on two more baskets as the Tar Heels turned away Purdue's hopes of getting to the Final Four in its first season under coach Sharon Versyp.
Larkins scored eight of UNC's first 10 points in the second half and Latta hit a jumper for the other. The lead peaked at nine before the Boilermakers made things interesting, although they never regained the lead.
Purdue only really was in control during an 11-2 stretch midway through the first half. North Carolina had a 16-2 spurt right after, but the final basket in that run was when Latta came away limping, a hand on her left hip. She went to the locker room with 2:06 left in the half.
A group of Tar Heels fans leaned over the tunnel to slap hands with players as they came out for the second half. Latta kept up the suspense by being the 11th of the 13 players to come out.