NASHVILLE, Tenn. --This is what Maryland kept desperately hoping to defer — that moment when its memorable, overachieving season would crash to an end, and senior star Alyssa Thomas would walk off the court for the final time in her college career.
The Terps made it all the way to the bright lights, pep rallies and glitz of the Final Four before encountering an undefeated Notre Dame team that stunned them with its rebounding in an 87-61 victory, sending the Fighting Irish (37-0) into Tuesday's national championship.
Notre Dame collected 50 rebounds to Maryland's 21. The total for the Terps, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding margin, was the lowest ever in a women's Final Four game.
“That alone takes us out of our entire game,” said Maryland freshman guard Lexie Brown, who finished with 11 points. “If we don't get stops and rebounds, we can't push in transition. Everything is linked together in the game of basketball.”
For much of the second half, the red-clad Maryland fans — who had packed excitedly into a lower section of sold-out Bridgestone Arena across from the team's bench and cheered loudly during warm-ups — sat in stunned silence.
Notre Dame will face defending national champion Connecticut, which defeated Stanford in Sunday's second Final Four game. The national title matchup is the first to feature two unbeaten teams.
Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride scored 19 of her 28 points in the first half to lead the Irish. Freshman center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) had 16 points for the Terps.
Thomas, Maryland's career scoring leader, remained on the floor in the second half as the Terps continued to trail by more than 20 points.
Thomas exited with 1:33 remaining to a standing ovation from the Maryland fans. She gave long hugs to coach Brenda Frese and assistant coach Tina Langley before sitting on the bench.
“I'm sad to see it be the last game and to go out like that,” Thomas said. “But I can't be disappointed. We'll get strong from this game, and they'll be back next year.”
One by one, Thomas and the other Terps received embraces from athletic director Kevin Anderson in their quiet locker room after the game.
“They had the hearts of champions,” Anderson said of Maryland, a No. 4 seed that upset top-seed Tennessee and third-seeded Louisville earlier in the tournament to advance to the Final Four.
Before leaving, Thomas planned to collect a poster hanging near the locker room door. “Welcome to the NCAA women's Final Four,” it read in blue lettering above “MARYLAND” in large block lettering. Thomas said she wanted it as a keepsake.
Maryland (28-7) may have been disappointed in its inability to slow McBride, but it could not have been surprised. The senior had scored at least 20 points 12 times this season, including 20 in a four-point win over the Terps on Jan. 27 in College Park.
Often guarded by Thomas, who battled foul trouble, McBride consistently broke down Maryland's defense with drives to the hoop that complemented her outside shooting.
But Notre Dame's rebounding advantage was surprising. In taking a 48-31 lead at halftime, the Irish outrebounded the Terps 23-8 and collected 11 offensive rebounds to Maryland's one.
“Obviously, the better team won tonight,” Frese said. “I thought they set the tone from the first possession with their offensive rebounding.”
Notre Dame was without leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Natalie Achonwa, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the Elite Eight. Achonwa was on the court visiting with her teammates during warm-ups. She was replaced in the lineup by freshman Taya Reimer, who had nine points and five rebounds.
“We knew they were a really good rebounding team, especially Alyssa Thomas,” Reimer said. “They have a lot of big, physical bodies, so that's definitely one of their strengths as a team. We were definitely focusing on that and making sure that we had a body on Alyssa Thomas. We had to make sure we controlled their defensive rebounding and get physical on the offensive glass as well.”
In the teams' regular-season meeting, the Terps collected 11 offensive rebounds and attempted 68 shots to Notre Dame's 53.
That's the sort of margin the Terps needed Sunday because the Irish shoot such a high percentage. Notre Dame entered as the ACC's top 3-point shooting team. The Irish shot 50.8 percent Sunday and were 3-for-10 on 3-pointers.
“It's something we had talked about at length,” Frese said of the rebounding battle. She said she was “disappointed, obviously, in terms of our lack of response to it.”
Notre Dame played as if it had been here before, which it certainly had.
It was Maryland's first Final Four since 2006. Notre Dame has now been to four straight Final Fours. If Maryland felt like an overnight visitor, the Irish were extended-stay guests.
Maryland had trailed in the teams' first meeting by 22 points in the first half before taking a second-half lead.
But, leading by 17 at the half, Notre Dame conceded nothing Sunday night.
The second half began with the Irish collecting yet another offensive rebound, their 12th of the game, and converting a quick basket to extend their lead.
“They clearly remembered what we did to them the last time,” Brown said of Notre Dame. “We were a second-half team, and they knew that.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun