COLLEGE PARK – It was a test Maryland had not cared to take: Could the Terps advance in the NCAA tournament against physically intimidating Texas on a night when star forward Alyssa Thomas – playing the final home game of her career – could not muster a field goal in the first half?
But there the fourth-seeded Terps were, tied at halftime with the fifth-seeded Longhorns with Thomas having missed all five of her field-goal attempts and both of her foul shots.
Aided by her "supporting cast," the Terps hung in until Thomas found her game in the second half – she finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds -- and Maryland earned a rugged, 69-64 victory.
The Terps (26-6) move on to Louisville, Ky., to play top-seeded Tennessee on Sunday in the Sweet 16.
“Like I told them in the locker room, we’re not finished,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “We're excited to be able to go. We’re going to go make a run for the roses.”
It was the final Comcast Center game for Thomas and four other seniors. Thomas waved as she walked off the court to a standing ovation from many in the announced crowd of 4,042 and was greeted with high-fives from Frese’s twin, 6-year-old sons.
After trailing by as many as 11 points, Texas cut the margin to 65-64 on a layup by center Imani McGee-Stafford following a Maryland turnover with 1:38 left.
Texas missed two chances to tie or take the lead. With the Longhorns still trailing 65-64, senior guard Chassidy Fussell missed a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left. After two free throws by Maryland’s Laurin Mincy, freshman forward Nekia Jones missed another 3-pointer from the corner with 11 seconds left and Texas trailing, 67-64.
“I would want those same players to take those same shots,” Texas coach Karen Aston said. “The shot Nekia got was a great shot.”
Thomas sealed the game with two free throws with eight seconds remaining. Smiling broadly, she chest-bumped teammate Sequoia Austin when the buzzer sounded.
Maryland, which is advancing to its third-straight Sweet 16, is trying to make a Final Four before the departure of Thomas, its career scoring leader. Its last trip was in the national championship season of 2005-06.
Thomas said she likes this team’s prospects because of its depth. Ten Maryland players got at least five minutes of playing time against the Longhorns, who were led by junior guard Krystle Henderson’s 14 points.
Thomas did not convert her first field goal until her second attempt of the second half.
“I was struggling to score [and] some of my teammates had the hot hand, so why not keep going to them?” Thomas said. “I just had to be patient and wait for my opportunity.”
Thomas scored again on a drive while being fouled moments later. The three-point play gave Maryland a 42-38 lead.
Moments later, Thomas converted another inside move, eliciting a loud roar from the crowd, which seemed to sense that Maryland’s leader was back on her game.
Texas seemed determined not be undone by Thomas, the three-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year who entered averaging 18.7 points per game. McGee-Stafford, the Longhorns’ 6-foot-7 center, would move toward Thomas when the Maryland player approached the lane.
“I thought we did a really nice job on her,” Aston said. She attributed Thomas’ second-half scoring to occasional “defensive breakdowns” but said: “”It also has to do with how great she is.”
Maryland and Texas are both large, physical teams, and both led their conference in rebounding. It was a game in which fouls were plentiful and open looks at the basket were rare. The Terps outrebounded the Longhorns, 42-33.
“It was physical,” Maryland center Alicia DeVaughn. “I mean, [those] girls are huge. You just can’t go mental with it. You’ve just got to be stronger and you’ve got to play like you’re bigger than them.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun