Sports

Top Terp Thomas Takes Last Shot At Final Four

by David Elfin
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Alyssa Thomas (credit: Maryland Athletics)

Alyssa Thomas (credit: Maryland Athletics)

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She is the leading scorer in the history of a highly pedigreed basketball program. In fact, with just 12 points in Sunday’s NCAA opener against Army at home, she will have scored more than any man who played at Maryland. She’s just 52 rebounds shy of leading the program in that category and 13 assists from ranking in the top five. And she joined former Duke All-American Alana Beard as the only women to be voted the ACC’s Player of the Year three times.

But Alyssa Thomas would trade all those records for a national championship.

“Absolutely,” the 6-foot-2 senior forward from Harrisburg said in a telephone interview. “It’s still hard to believe that I’ve been able to accomplish what I have, but I’m not done yet. I’m playing with more urgency because this is my last chance to win a national championship.”

Not only has Thomas yet to match the title that Kristi Tolliver, Shay Doron, Crystal Langhorne, Marissa Coleman and Laura Harper won for coach Brenda Frese in 2006, she hasn’t even reached a Final Four. But neither Thomas nor her coach feel that her career has been anything but a huge success no matter what happens in this year’s tournament.

“Alyssa was a woman amongst girls,” Frese said of discovering Thomas in a little-known tournament in the summer of 2008. “With her broad shoulders and her ability to play every position, she won our hearts. She’s by far the most competitive player I’ve coached and is absolutely one of the best I’ve coached. She has the ability to play wherever she’s needed. Last year due to injuries, she played point guard. She makes double-doubles [Thomas has a school-record 62, including six triple-doubles, which only four players in NCAA history have accomplished] look routine. You don’t get a player like that very often. She has represented Maryland to the highest level on and off the court.”

Just not in the ultimate games. The Terps made the Elite Eight in two of the next three years after winning it all in 2006. However, the only season in which they have advanced that far since was 2012 when sophomore Thomas led a team that rallied from way behind to beat Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 but had nothing left against Notre Dame two nights later. Maryland was upset by Georgetown in the second round when Thomas was a freshman and fell to eventual national champion Connecticut in last year’s Sweet 16.

“This team is extremely close,” Frese said. “Everyone’s playing for Alyssa and our other seniors. They know when they come to Maryland what the expectations are and how high the bar has been set. It’s so hard in the tournament, having the right bracket, getting the right calls, having the ball drop. A lot of factors go into winning a championship. Obviously, you want to get back to the Final Four, but a lot of programs are thrilled when they get to Sweet 16s. It’s hard to do consistently.”

Despite its 24-6 record and No. 11 ranking, Maryland hasn’t been that consistent lately. The Terps started 16-1, losing only to No. 1 UConn, but then lost three in a row. Maryland is 1-5 against ranked foes after its 73-70 loss to North Carolina in its ACC finale two weeks ago.

“It’s been a successful season, but it’s definitely been a work in progress with freshmen being our second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers,” Frese said. “So it’s taken time to build chemistry. Last year, you knew you were going to get double figures from both Alyssa and [then-senior center] Tianna [Hawkins]. This year other than Alyssa, that consistency factor has been missing. We have 13 players who are capable. It’s a matter of who’s on any given night.”

The self-effacing Thomas, who will graduate with a degree in family science in May before heading to the WNBA, has had to change her style this season.

“I’ve had to take on more of a leadership role,” she said. “We start two freshmen so I feel kind of obligated to make sure they know what to expect and that they stay calm on the court. We have so many more players than we did last year with all the injuries. We have so much depth that we can really wear teams out. It has been a learning experience for our freshmen, but I know they’re more than ready for this moment. With the talent we have, we’re more than capable of going to the Final Four. It’s all on us and how we compete.”

Fourth-seeded Maryland should beat Army before probably facing fifth-seeded Texas on Tuesday at Comcast Center. If the Terps won that matchup, they’d likely meet top-seeded Tennessee in the Sweet 16. But at least UConn, Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor are in the other half of the draw, meaning Maryland would avoid them all until the Final Four.

“You can definitely feel the sense of urgency with our seniors,” Frese said. “I expect our players to be extremely motivated.”

Thomas certainly is.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, with that losing streak and not competing quite the way we wanted to in the ACC Tournament, but that’s all behind us and now we have this tournament to go out with a bang,” she said.

Juan Dixon did just that to lead Maryland’s men to their only national crown in 2002. Thomas, who should top Dixon’s school scoring record on Sunday, would certainly exit in glory if she can match his title.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.

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