NEW ORLEANS - The No. 1-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, notorious slow-starters throughout the NCAA Women's Tournament, trailed by 18 points in Saturday's South Region semifinal matinee.
But never out.
"They didn't turn their backs on the battlefield," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "They charged up the hill. They charged even harder."
And UNC took the game away from the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals.
The Tar Heels (33-2) turned up the defensive heat, beating Louisville 78-74 at the New Orleans Arena and earning a spot in Monday night's region final against No. 2 LSU.
"It's not our intention to come out lethargic," UNC forward Rashanda McCants said. "It's almost like we come out and try to feel our way into the game. I don't know why."
Part of the reason was Louisville's work on the boards. The Cardinals (26-10) outrebounded UNC 56-44, led by Candyce Bingham's 20 (tying a regional record). But the real culprit was Cardinals forward Angel McCoughtry, who had 21 of her game-high 33 points in the first half, when the Cardinals outran, outshot and outhustled the Tar Heels.
"She's an amazing player," McCants said. "She's one of the best - actually the best - players I've seen. All you can do is trail her and hope she misses."
UNC's trapping pressure eventually forced Louisville into sloppy ball-handling and far too many missed shots in the second half. The Tar Heels chipped away and took the lead for good, 59-57, on Jessica Breland's layup with 8:43 left.
From there, Louisville fell behind by eight, but hung in. UNC missed four of six free-throw attempts in the final minute, including two by LaToya Pringle, and Bingham buried a 3-pointer with 28.7 seconds remaining, cutting UNC's lead to 76-74.
Pringle was fouled and sent back to the line.
"I don't know what my mind-set was then," she said. "I was so nervous. That was one of the pressurized situations I've been in."
She hit them both with 25.7 seconds to play.
"I just thanked God and got back on defense," she said.
UNC moved on - with some difficulty - even with a sub-par afternoon from star forward Erlana Larkins (seven points on 2-for-12 shooting).
"We were up 18, but that wasn't something I felt real comfortable with," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We knew it would be a game of runs. They got their run."
After yet another slow start.
"The fact that we won with these numbers 25 turnovers, severely outrebounded, I think that's good," Hatchell said. "They didn't fold. They bonded together, and on most teams that wouldn't happen. They knew what it took to win."