COLLEGE PARK — At her most brilliant moments in a Maryland women's basketball uniform, Alyssa Thomas transforms into an overwhelming brute force. Offensive rebounds are vacuumed into her hands. She rips through contact the way high school football players do paper pep signs, and the ensuing putbacks seem to always drop down the net.
Second-ranked Notre Dame encountered Thomas the way so many opponents have before, offering little resistance as the All-America forward ripped off 29 points and 12 rebounds and casually broke two more program records along the way. But the eighth-ranked Terps had dug themselves into so deep an early hole that not even a superhuman second half from Thomas could hoist them out. Despite erasing a 22-point deficit, their upset bid at Comcast Center fell short in an 87-83 loss.
"I thought we showed a lot of character, especially when we were down, to be able to scratch and claw and give ourselves a chance in the second half," coach Brenda Frese said, before quickly sliding into more critical territory. "We lost this game in the first half."
Before Thomas ignited the building with a series of layups, Maryland looked like just another doormat onto which the unbeaten Fighting Irish could step. As Frese stood on the sidelines, arms crossed and tongue hanging from her mouth in disappointment, the Terps were getting doubled up, 28-14.
Of Notre Dame's 18 previous victories, only one came by single digits and none featured any late-game drama. The diverse arsenal of slashers such as Jewell Lloyd (game-high 31 points), experienced leaders such as Kayla McBride (20 points) and outside threats such as Michaela Mabrey (13 points) had buried ranked teams before, and hoped to do it again. Slowly, though, with energy unusual for a team behind 41-19 at the first half's final media timeout, Maryland began to chip away.
"We were disappointed in our defense, obviously, to start the game," Frese said. "I thought we defended, quite honestly, harder in practice than how we started. We came out with a better mindset, a lot harder ball pressure and started trusting ourselves from a defensive end."
As halftime came and went, the Terps made their move. Thomas, who opened the game missing seven of eight shots, became unstoppable inside. The Fighting Irish tried fronting her. They tried face-guarding her, too. Nothing worked. And when Thomas whipped a pass around two defenders and found center Alicia DeVaughn (16 points), the game was tied at 60.
"Thomas was unbelievable," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.
But Notre Dame regained a modest lead, and Maryland never could quite scale the final hill. When Thomas hit one free throw with less than four minutes left to pull within one point, Mabrey swished a 3-pointer on the other end. Lloyd answered DeVaughn's layup with a jumper. The Terps needed a stop. It never came.
"I think it's on us," said Thomas, who along the way became Maryland's all-time leader in free throws made and field goals attempted. "I think if we would have come out with the intensity that we started in the first half at the end, I think we would have gotten them. It would have a been a different game. But credit to them."
How else could the Terps approach the aftermath of their second straight loss but with regret? They had been frustrated over Thursday's collapse at Virginia, and Monday offered the chance for redemption. To overcome such a deficit against a national title contender, with two road games ahead, might have erased everything that festered throughout the weekend.
Then McBride splashed a step-back jumper with 11 seconds left and the game was iced. Later, the Terps traced everything back to the start.
"The biggest thing for us is we have to jump out early," Frese said. "These slow starts are hindering us in terms of our performance."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun