When you overcome a 14-point halftime deficit, the second-largest comeback in ACC Tournament history, you need a few breaks to go your way. And for most of the game against Maryland, it felt like Carolina wasn't getting those.
Throughout the second half, Carolina quickly got the 14-point deficit down to ten points and kept chipping away at the lead, but it never really felt like the Tar Heels could get it to a one-possession game and keep it there. Maryland kept adding to its cushion: five points, seven points, then down to four, and back up to 5-6.
And that wasn't the only frustrating part of it. Starting point guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt picked up her fourth foul with just over ten minutes left. Most of the Tar Heels spent the afternoon in foul trouble, as the game seemingly was filled with them. There were 45 total fouls called and 54 free-throw attempts between the two teams.
Didn't seem like things could get worse. At about the six-minute mark, there was a stoppage as the referees needed to clear up something. Ruffin-Pratt ran over to the sideline, just in front of the Gatorade cooler, and got sick. She was already in foul trouble, and the senior - who has carried UNC in close, late-game situations - was literally out of commission.
Carolina was still down by three at that point, and there just didn't seem to be any conceivable way they could come back. When it gets to that point in a movie or in a book - the chips are down, the hero seems in an impossible jam - it takes a deus ex machina sometimes to save the day. And the hero wins, somehow, as a result of something - or someone - that came out of nowhere.
Carolina's deus ex machina was the smallest player on the roster, sophomore point guard Latifah Coleman. She came in for an ailing Ruffin-Pratt and scored 15 of Carolina's final 23 points. And in about a two-minute stretch, she scored eight points, including hitting a three-pointer to put Carolina up by three with 1:48 to go.
She drove into the paint and hit floaters, drew contact and was generally dominant. And when she hit that three-pointer, she held her follow-through and strutted a little bit. This was the same player who earlier this season in a game against even a much lesser non-conference foe would make a mistake and hang her head.
"I know everybody's going to ask me where Latifah (Coleman) came from," head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "We shipped her in from Mars this morning."
Coleman wasn't even supposed to play on Saturday. She tore her ACL last year and is still far from 100 percent. She has struggled to get her leg back to full strength, and now, she's having problems with the quad muscle in her "good leg", as she put it. She had treatment on the leg on Friday night, and Hatchell didn't even know if she would be able to play.
"She hardly even played yesterday because last year she had knee surgery, had an ACL, and she's still having some problems from all that, so we weren't even sure she was going to play today," Hatchell said of Coleman. "She took treatments over the night and I'm sure she's in probably a lot of pain now." Coleman, hearing this, nodded.
But she didn't show it. And maybe that's at least in part due to Hatchell's halftime speech. Down by 14, coming off a sluggish and sloppy victory the night before, Hatchell wasn't nice. But she rarely is at halftime if she feels her team isn't giving all it can. That hasn't been a problem most of this season. And it certainly wasn't in the second half.
She talked to them about pride, playing for each other, and who they are. "They had my back," Hatchell said. "They bought into what we were trying to do and that's what makes this group of kids so special."
And so when she had to put Coleman in the game for that stretch run, Coleman knew what she had to do. It was simple, really. Even though it wasn't simple at all. "(Ruffin-Pratt) went out of the game and Coach just told me to be a leader. I hit that three and just got in a rhythm and I didn't stop from there," Coleman said.
It won't be easy against Duke this afternoon, either. Even Hatchell marveled aloud at how well the Blue Devils have played so far in the ACC Tournament; much like the Tar Heels, they have gutted out tough wins as well.
"We're just going to work hard to give Duke a game, because they sure looked - ooh, wow, they're tough," Hatchell said, shaking her head, "but we're going to go out there and battle hard and do the best we can and hopefully carry over some of what happened today."