NEW ORLEANS — For sheer Final Four experience, it's hard to imagine more on the court in a region final than in tonight's showdown between North Carolina and LSU.
Five Tigers senior starters have been to the Final Four three times, and four UNC starters have gone the past two years.
Which team gets to advance to Tampa for yet another Final Four? That could come down to the only novice on the court, point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid, who has shown uncanny poise in stepping in to lead the Tar Heels as a freshman.
"I don't think she gets nearly the credit she deserves," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said Sunday. "Look at what she's done for our team, where we are. (Connecticut's) Maya Moore, no doubt, is the best freshman in the country, but I think Cetera's second best. I don't know another freshman who's done more for a team than Cetera has done."
The Tar Heels graduated an All-America point guard in Ivory Latta, then lost her successor when senior Alex Miller tore a knee ligament in the fourth game. Since then, DeGraffenreid has run the nation's highest-scoring offense, chipping in 11.8 points a game as well in leading the Tar Heels (33-2) through their 16-game win streak.
"Coach said, 'Just play your game.' They've always been there to help me all through the way," said the 5-foot-6 player from Cullowhee, N.C. "I am a freshman. That's how it is."
DeGraffenreid will have her hands full tonight with LSU senior Erica White, who had 18 points in Saturday's win against Oklahoma State.
DeGraffenreid had zero assists in UNC's win against Louisville but scored 13. Hatchell said that early on she had to prod her to do more than just pass to the Tar Heels' veteran frontcourt of Erlana Larkins, LaToya Pringle and Rashanda McCants.
"She wasn't trying to score points. All she could think about at first was passing the ball to Erlana, LaToya and Rashanda," said Hatchell, noting that DeGraffenreid is 4-for-6 on 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament. "I had to get on her about not taking her shots. She wouldn't shoot the ball. They're upperclassmen, and she wanted their approval."
She has gotten it, as well as the respect of White, who didn't step into a starting role at LSU (30-5) until her sophomore year.
"She's done an excellent job running her team this year," White said. "It's a big challenge. My freshman year, I was more of a 13th man or something like that. I didn't play the role she's playing. Any young player that's thrust into that position, you either handle it or you break. She's done a great job handling the job she's been asked to do."
DeGraffenreid will have to prove herself against the nation's top scoring defense. Understandably, she looked like a freshman in UNC's two losses, with seven turnovers and zero assists at Tennessee and a 2-for-10 shooting effort at Connecticut.
"She's done a remarkable job," LSU coach Van Chancellor said. "When you replace a great point guard and take a team over, it's almost like a coach taking a team over. She's not a freshman anymore because she's played enough games. The kid has played remarkably well."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3346.