NEW ORLEANS — After 470 collegiate wins and five region finals, LSU coach Van Chancellor is going to his first Final Four as No. 2 seed LSU used a stifling defense and a partisan purple crowd to knock off top-seeded North Carolina 56-50 Monday night at New Orleans Arena.
"I am thrilled to death. … I don't intend to sleep a wink tonight," said the 64-year-old coach, clutching a game ball. "I'm going to enjoy it as long as I can, and I'll think about the next game sometime Wednesday."
One 6-foot-6 reason the Tigers are coming to Tampa this week for their fifth straight Final Four? Center Sylvia Fowles, one of five senior starters, was a no-brainer for tournament MVP honors after getting 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks.
Monday's region final pitted LSU, leading the nation in scoring defense, against North Carolina, the top scoring team. Defense won, with LSU holding the Tar Heels to 38 points below their season average. Their previous low this season was 71 in a loss at Connecticut.
"Defense has been our bread and butter all year," Fowles said. "We knew if we came out here and played defense, our offense would pick up. We've played great defense the last few years. … We knew it was our last year and we wanted to go all out."
"A team scores 56 points and beats us, that's like a nightmare," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "… I thought it was a very ugly game. Who wants to watch a game that's 56-50? It was not a normal game for us, and LSU probably had a lot to do with that."
Only Connecticut also has made five straight trips to the Final Four.
Playing 80 miles from Baton Rouge didn't help UNC, as all but a few hundred of the 5,067 in attendance at the 18,500-seat arena were wearing purple and yellow. Hatchell was frustrated that her team, seeded No. 2 overall in the draw, would get such a draw.
"It was tough coming down here to play in this environment," said Hatchell, whose team has lost to the eventual champion each of the past three seasons.
The Tar Heels (33-3) trailed 24-21 at halftime and stayed close, pulling to within 36-35 on a basket by LaToya Pringle, who led UNC with 21 points and 11 rebounds. But LSU answered with a 3-pointer — one of three by Quianna Chaney — and UNC wouldn't get closer than two again. LSU clinched the win at the free-throw line, with senior guard Erica White going 6-for-6 in the final 93 seconds.
"It doesn't have to be pretty. The most important thing is to win," White said of LSU's grind-it-out style. "It's not going to be pretty, but at the end of the day, defense pulled it out for us."
Pringle was the only UNC player to hit a field goal in the first 17 minutes of the second half; forward Erlana Larkins went 2-for-11 against Fowles, while freshman point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid went 1-for-9 with two assists.
Chancellor, the longtime Mississippi coach who returned to college basketball at LSU after winning four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets, had gone 0-for-4 in previous region finals. He was brought to tears after the game and thanked a senior-laden team for making a senior coach look good.
"It's good to think somebody can be my age and not be over the hill, can be productive in life," he said. "I've never thought about my age. Your age is what you think you are. I think I'm 44 going on 34, and tonight, I feel 24. … We may not be the prettiest girl at the dance, but we're at the dance."