That is, until Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell pulled out a zone defense, perhaps the last thing Vanderbilt expected, and North Carolina held Vanderbilt scoreless in the final three minutes for a 73-69 victory and a berth in tomorrow's regional final at the Louis Brown Athletic Center at Rutgers University.
"We gambled with a zone in the second half, and it paid off," said Hatchell. "It was a gamble, but what you saw was what our team has done all year long. They showed a lot of heart."
North Carolina, the region's third seed, will meet top seed Connecticut (30-2), which beat fourth seed Southern Mississippi, behind 27 points from Big East Player of the Year Rebecca Lobo and 20 points from freshman Carla Berube.
"They are pretty good," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the Tar Heels. "I thought they were out of the game and they made a heck of a comeback. They're the kind of team that gives us trouble. They're talented, quick, big and athletic."
The Tar Heels (30-2) needed all the heart they could muster, as they played Vanderbilt (25-8), the Southeastern Conference runner-up, without junior forward Charlotte Smith, a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and the most valuable player of North Carolina's ACC tournament win.
Smith, the niece of former North Carolina State great David Thompson, was ejected with 40 seconds left in Sunday's second-round win over Old Dominion for fighting and missed last night's game under NCAA rules. She sat, forlorn, behind the North Carolina bench, hoping for a chance to play again this season.
"We knew all along we could win without Charlotte," said senior center Sylvia Crawley. "That opened it up for others who don't get to play."
The void provided a kick-start for Crawley and senior guard Tonya Sampson, who provided 22 and 23 points, respectively.
"Sylvia Crawley told the team during a timeout that it was not going to be her last game, and she meant it," said Hatchell.
Said Crawley: "I felt like I was in a zone tonight, and I was going to do whatever it took for us to win."
Crawley, 6 feet 5, was especially effective in her matchup with Vanderbilt's All-America senior center Heidi Gillingham, who had points.
With 10 seconds left, Gillingham, who at 6-10 is the tallest player in Division I women's basketball, missed an open layup that would have tied the score at 71.
Instead, the Commodores were forced to foul Sampson, who made two free throws with 5.6 seconds left.