March 19, 2009

North Carolina's No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament is somewhat of a disappointment for the perennial powerhouse. Upstart Central Florida didn't let a setback of its own ruin its season.

With their lowest seed in five years, the Tar Heels meet the surging Knights in the first round of the Oklahoma City Regional on Saturday.

North Carolina (27-6) has its lowest seed since 2004, when it was a No. 4 and was upset in the first round by 13th-seeded Middle Tennessee State.

The 11th-ranked Tar Heels are an underdog in a region topped by Oklahoma and No. 2 seed Auburn and are facing a UCF team that bounced back from a 2-11 start to win the Conference USA tournament championship.

North Carolina has lost two of its last four, including 75-69 in the ACC semifinals to eventual champion Maryland on March 7. The Tar Heels had won the previous four league titles, following them with No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

"Having been a No. 1 seed the last four years, this year will be a little bit different, but I think our schedule has prepared us for this challenge," coach Sylvia Hatchell said.

North Carolina is led by senior Rashanda McCants, who's averaging 14.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

"It's exciting to get started, knowing it's my last chance to play in the NCAA tournament," McCants said. "We've had three great teams before and this year's team is no different. I think that experience will shine through."

McCants is the only senior in a starting lineup that includes two sophomores and a freshman.

The 14th-seeded Knights (17-16) start four sophomores and a freshman. A lack of experience was evident early in the season during UCF's terrible start, but the team clearly matured down the stretch as it won 15 of its last 20 - including its final six.

"We never gave up and stayed confident. We trusted in our coaching staff and ended up No. 1 in the league," said sophomore forward Emma Cannon, averaging a team-high 15.4 points and 11.5 rebounds. "We just said we'd go all out and do whatever it took."

Cannon had 16 points, 15 rebounds and three steals as UCF earned an automatic bid by beating Southern Mississippi 65-54 in overtime in the Conference USA tournament title game March 8. She set a conference tournament record with 58 rebounds in four games.

Cannon will be matched up with North Carolina's Jessica Breland, who averages 14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds. Breland, though, is averaging 7.7 points and 5.4 rebounds in nine NCAA tournament games.

The Tar Heels won seven of those contests and are 38-19 in 20 tournament appearances.

The Knights, who have lost each of their two tournament games, will be making their first appearance since 1999, when they fell 90-49 to Louisiana Tech.

North Carolina won its only meeting with UCF 99-51 on Nov. 28, 1987. The winner will face sixth-seeded Purdue or No. 11 Charlotte on Monday.