North Carolina guard Tonya Sampson has been told she "plays like a guy."
Some women's basketball players might take that as an insult, but Sampson wears the phrase as a badge of honor. Her game, going back to her childhood days on the playgrounds of Clinton, N.C., as the only girl to play with her neighborhood "posse," always has been about power, speed and strength.
"A lot of guys tried to take advantage of me. They would say, 'Oh, we can run over her.' My friends would say, 'You can do that if you want to. You'll get something you don't want,' " said Sampson.
Sampson, a 5-foot-9 senior, will lead the Tar Heels into this weekend's Final Four in Richmond, Va., leading a team kick line during the playing of the school's alma mater and carrying an insouciance that alternately delights her teammates and drives her coach, Sylvia Hatchell, to distraction.
"Tonya will say something really silly during the game just to lighten us up," said teammate Stephanie Lawrence. "She's crazy, and she's a lot of fun to be around."
Said Hatchell: "Tonya's a fun-loving person. I've never had a player I've ever coached that has been so good to be around, and I've never had a player that's made me maybe pull out my hair."
But Sampson, a three-time first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, has been drop-dead serious, especially in the Tar Heels' postseason run, which has included a win over Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game and impressive victories over Vanderbilt and Connecticut in last weekend's East Regional.
For her four NCAA tournament games this year, Sampson, who was third in the ACC in scoring this season, is averaging 21.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 4.0 assists.
In Saturday's regional final, Sampson earned Most Valuable Player honors, with 30 points, seven rebounds and a regional-record six steals that powered North Carolina into its first Final Four with an 81-69 win over the top-seeded Huskies.
"She's a great player. She's a big-time player, and she proved that," said Connecticut guard Jennifer Rizzotti, who guarded Sampson for most of the day. "She carried their team for a while, and they took it the rest of the way."
Sampson's physical play also has caused problems for opposition coaches and players.
In the past two seasons, Sampson, perhaps the strongest player in the ACC, has planted two opponents, former Maryland center Jessie Hicks and Virginia forward Charleata Beale, on the court with shots that could be seen as cheap and unnecessary.
"It wasn't like I was intentionally doing it. It was in the heat of the moment. It just happened because they were trying to push me around and they were getting away with it. I'm the type of player that if you're playing dirty, I'll warn you and I'll tell the refs. But if you just bowl me over, I just go overboard," said Sampson.
Said Hatchell: "She's an extremely competitive person. Tonya grew up playing with guys, and she was in a male-dominated setting. That's when she learned to be aggressive. A lot of people have the wrong impression about Tonya. She's very tenderhearted. When she's on the court, though, and the ball is in play, she'll play anyone and she has that take-it-to-you attitude."
Georgia Tech coach Agnus Berenato said: "She's more competitive than others. She's got a burning desire to succeed, and I think she's got a great smile. She's got a real attitude on the court, but off the court, you just want to hug her."
Sampson has toned down the on-court outbursts that have inhibited her play. Two years ago, in the ACC tournament semifinals against Virginia, Sampson let former Cavaliers All-America guard Tammi Reiss bait her into throwing a basketball off the backboard. The resulting technical foul and subsequent free throws turned a close game into a decisive Virginia win.
"That wouldn't happen this year," said Sampson. "It made me look like a bad player or a person with an attitude, which is not true. People look down on you when you do things like that. I've learned, and I haven't done that since. It was something that happened that time, and you plan on not letting it happen again."
Still, even with her increased maturity, Sampson hasn't lost her penchant for saying whatever comes to her mind.
After Saturday's game, Sampson said before a roomful of media: "When I'm playing my game, I don't think anybody in the country can stop me. It's just the way I play. Most of the girls have never played against guys like I have. What they [the boys she grew up with] have built me into, no other player can stop that."