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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Having a short bench finally took its toll on No. 10 Maryland.
The defending Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions ran out of steam in the semifinals when No. 15 North Carolina claimed a 72-65 win Saturday.
Second-seeded Maryland (24-7) took on the physical Tar Heels less than 24 hours after needing overtime — and a triple-double from Alyssa Thomas — to beat Wake Forest.
And while Thomas nearly did it again, finishing three assists shy of a second straight triple-double, the Terrapins — who are down to essentially a six-player rotation because of injuries — simply didn’t have enough fresh bodies to keep up with the deeper Tar Heels.
“Carolina came out much more physical, much more aggressive (in the second half), and for us it was a situation where their depth and their numbers were able to wear us out,” coach Brenda Frese said.
While depth was a huge problem for the Terps, North Carolina (28-5) found its star of the game buried deep on its bench: Latifah Coleman scored 15 of her career-high 17 points in the final 6-plus minutes to help the third-seeded Tar Heels rally.
“We shipped her in from Mars this morning,” coach Sylvia Hatchell quipped.
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt added 20 points for the Tar Heels, who rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit — the second-biggest comeback in the history of the tournament — by shooting 50 percent in the second half.
They will face No. 6 Duke in the title game Sunday. It’s the eighth time the fierce rivals will meet with a conference championship on the line, with the Blue Devils winning five of those previous seven matchups.
Coleman — a redshirt sophomore who averages 3.4 points in roughly 15 minutes per game — responded by hitting jumpers on the next two possessions.
Ruffin-Pratt followed with four straight free throws to propel the Tar Heels to their league-record 18th berth in the title game but first since 2008.
Walteia Rolle had 19 points and 11 rebounds, and ACC rookie of the year Xylina McDaniel had 12 rebounds for the Tar Heels.
Maryland entered as the nation’s No. 2 team in rebounding margin at plus-15 but North Carolina outrebounded the Terps by six to deny them their 14th berth in the finals.
Tianna Hawkins added 14 points and Rutan finished with 12 on four 3-pointers for Maryland.
The defending ACC tournament champions led by 16 in the final minute of the first half and were up 50-43 with less than 10 minutes remaining on Hawkins’ jumper.
The Tar Heels countered that with their Coleman-led 16-5 burst that gave them their first lead since the opening 5 minutes.
Coleman hit three big shots during the run, including a tying 3-pointer, a pretty baseline drive that put North Carolina up 54-53 and a driving layup that pushed the lead to 59-55 with under 4 minutes left.
“She caught fire on that first 3 and really gained confidence from there,” Frese said. “When you have a bench like Carolina does, (you can) figure out which player has the hot hand. … Obviously, she did for them today.”
“Coach just told me to be a leader,” Coleman said. “I hit that first 3 and got in a rhythm and didn’t stop from there.”
These two programs have combined for 19 tournament titles — 10 for Maryland, nine for North Carolina — and they finished the regular season so closely tied for second place in the league standings that the only way to separate them was by a coin flip.
Both were 14-4 in league play, and they split the series with each team winning at home, losing to Duke twice and Florida State once. North Carolina edged the Terps by three points in Chapel Hill, while Maryland rolled the Tar Heels by 26 on its home floor.
For a while it looked like a repeat of that beatdown in College Park. Maryland used a Thomas-led 22-7 run late in the half and went up 38-22 with 6.4 seconds left in the half.
The Tar Heels tightened things right back up with a 20-6 run, with McDaniel’s steal and layup with just under 13 minutes left pulling them to 44-42 and it stayed tight until North Carolina pulled away down the stretch.
By David A. Clarke Jr.
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