Originally created 03/06/03

York's Latta to cap amazing career in title game



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Dreher coach Teresa Jones couldn't help but laugh when she was asked how she planned to stop York's Ivory Latta in Saturday's Class 3A state championship game.

After all, Latta has set a state record for both boys and girls with 4,272 points in her high school career. She's increased her regular-season average of better than 43 points a game to 51 per game in the playoffs. And she promised her teammates she would get them back to win a second straight-title.

"Stop her?" Jones said, pausing to search for an answer that never came. "I don't know if that's possible."

Latta's assault on the record book and her engaging personality have made her by far the most popular player in South Carolina this year.

The fire marshal closed the doors for safety reasons at her final home game last Thursday, when she scored 70 in a 110-71 win over Belton-Honea Path in the third round of the playoffs.

Organizers of the Upper State finals moved the game to a larger gym, expecting a huge turnout to watch Latta. And fans packed the 3,600 capacity Byrnes High gym to see Latta hit 53, including 28 of her team's 31 second-half points, in a 66-56 win against Wren on Monday.

One of the most remarkable thing about Latta is her size - thin and listed at 5-foot-6, although she might be a bit shorter.

"She's a phenomenal player," York coach Arsonia Stroud said. "And she's a phenomenal person."

Latta will end her high school career at the Carolina Center on Saturday, taking on Dreher (27-2). The Cougars (22-5) beat the Blue Devils 64-61 last year to win the state title and break Dreher's 40-game winning streak.

Latta's basketball life starts on the full-size basketball court her father built in their back yard. "I dream, eat, sleep and think about basketball all the time," Latta said.

The youngest of seven children, Latta had a procession of older brothers and sisters to beat, not to mention a father who pushed her so hard to be a competitor that Latta was beating him one-on-one by the time she was 13.

By then, Latta's dad wasn't the only one losing to her on the court. She first played for the York varsity in seventh-grade, joining her two older sisters. She averaged nine points a game coming off the bench.

Since then, both Latta's scoring and leadership has been on the rise. Along with her state scoring record, she owns seven other South Carolina bests, from her 1,201 points this season to the 17 free throws she made in last year's championship game.

She has scored 50 points or better eight times this season. York coaches can't find anyone who has done it more than four times.

But just as important is how Latta makes her teammates better. Stroud jokes that Latta sometimes finishes her sentences in the huddle. The other players say Latta helps their confidence by telling them where to go on offense and what to do.

"We listen to her. She knows what she's talking about," senior Felicia Hemphill said.

Latta is a leader in the locker room, too.

"She has to know she's better than them," assistant coach Paula Blackwell said. "But she treats them like they are better than her."

"You should see her," Stroud said, following up. "She'll be in the locker room, telling them, 'You know you should have done this and you should have done that.'

"But then she goes, 'You did a real good job on this. You did that really well.' "

Latta will go to North Carolina next season. Her next goal is to play in the WNBA with her cousin Tiffani Johnson of the Houston Comets. "If she doesn't retire," Latta said, smiling.

Stroud said she will miss Latta, both on the court and as a person. "She's been such a pleasure," the coach said.

But Stroud looks forward to see what the best player she's ever coached will do next.

"She'll be a success at whatever she does, on the basketball court or not," Stroud said. "Just ask her teachers."