Alyssa Thomas. Alyssa Thomas. Alyssa Thomas.
Why isn't that a household name in the state of Maryland? University of Maryland Women's Basketball Coach Brenda Frese gave a stirring locker room speech prior to Sunday's game against the mighty Tennessee Lady Volunteers (caught by an ESPN camera) vowing that, when the dust settled after the Sweet 16 matchup, the No. 1 seed would "remember our name."
Well, they'll remember somebody's name. Maryland defeated Tennessee 73-62 in a game that was dominated by the Terrapins' star forward from start to finish as she ended up with a career-high 33 points and 13 rebounds. And who was the first name on the lips of Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick after the game that propelled the Terps into the Elite 8?
Alyssa Thomas. Coach Warlick called her unstoppable and said the Lady Vols just "didn't have an answer for her."
The Maryland women's basketball program may not have quite the history of the Lady Vols and their eight national titles, but Coach Frese has been there before. It wasn't that long ago that the Terps won it all, an NCAA national title in 2006. But Alyssa Thomas has been something special, easily the most dominant women's basketball player in school history.
Commentators and teammates compare her to none other than LeBron James, the Miami Heat forward who has become the Michael Jordan of the era, the marquee player of the National Basketball Association, the one against whom all others are compared. Maryland's "Lady LeBron" is that versatile, that dominant, that physical around the basket, and that gifted.
And she's practically a local. She grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., became a star at Central Dauphin High and an All-American selection. Every Division I school in the nation wanted her, but the Terps got her — and she responded with a four-year, record-setting career, the last three as Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year.
Len Bias won that award twice. Albert King, Joe Smith and Juan Dixon, all once apiece. No Maryland men's player has done it three times. In fact, only one men's player in the history of the conference has, and his name is Ralph Sampson. Played for some southern school that starts with a "V" and ends with an "a."
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Alyssa Thomas, Maryland's greatest — and last — ACC star.
Given that remarkable accomplishment and that Coach Frese has the Terrapins just one win away from the Final Four, the penultimate ambition of college basketball, one would think that Maryland would be abuzz, that we'd be living in a sea of No. 25 jerseys. While the Terps haven't gone unnoticed exactly, it appears the average local basketball fan has paid more attention to Connecticut's unexpected run in the men's bracket than to anything associated with women's sports — even when it's happening just a few miles away.
When Alyssa Thomas played her last game at Comcast Center, defeating Texas 69-64 last week to advance to the Sweet 16, how many fans do you suppose were in attendance? Here's a hint: the men's basketball team averaged a home attendance of 12,557 this season despite a lackluster record of 17-15. Would you believe only 4,042 when students could get in free to an NCAA Tournament game?
We will grant you that women's college sports are not often big box office draw compared to their male counterparts, but the team attracted only about 600 fewer fans when it played Loyola University Maryland in an 89-53 blowout last November. That's a shame. Not for Alyssa Thomas, whose athletic accomplishments speak for themselves, but for the sports fans of Maryland who missed the opportunity to be a part of what will have been a legendary career.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., she will be back in action facing another extraordinary challenge, a dominating Louisville Cardinals team that is essentially playing a home game. But don't bet against Alyssa Thomas. The Terps have been repeatedly underestimated this year, and, despite all her accomplishments, so has the team's star player.
Nationwide, college sports has its share of problems. The multi-billion-dollar football and men's basketball programs, in particular, have been repeatedly hit by numerous scandals that belie the NCAA's insistence that athletes are students, let alone unpaid amateurs. The recent ruling by a regional National Labor Relations Board director that Northwestern University football players have a right to organize as a union laid bare many of these issues.
Yet what a joy it is to watch a college senior at the top of her game compete with such skill, determination and class before a national audience in a sport that means so much to our community. That she does so with the name "Maryland" stitched across her jersey ought to be a source of pride to everyone who calls the state home.