There were four minutes remaining in the first half and Maryland's women's basketball team — which has won 84 percent of its games at Comcast Center since the building opened in 2002 — was in the unaccustomed and embarrassing position of getting dominated on its home floor on national television.
Notre Dame 41, Maryland 19. The score at that point in the game stuck with Alyssa Thomas weeks later. "This can't happen," Maryland's career scoring leader remembered thinking at the time.
Led by Thomas, Maryland came all the way back against the undefeated Irish, taking a one-point lead midway through the second half before falling, 87-83, on Jan. 27. It was closest that Notre Dame (36-0) has come to losing all season.
Nine weeks later, as the Terps (28-6) prepare to play the Irish again — this time in Sunday night's Final Four in Nashville, Tenn. — Maryland coach Brenda Frese said she regards that first meeting as critical to her team's understanding how good it can be.
"Being within two possessions in that game really gave us confidence that we could play with anyone," Frese said Wednesday, less than 24 hours after earning a berth to the national semifinals with a 76-73 win over Louisville.
Maryland, which plays three freshmen in prominent roles, seems to have spent much of the season establishing its sense of self. After the Notre Dame game, freshman guard Lexie Brown went on a shooting tear, scoring 20 points against North Carolina State in the next game and a career-high 31 points against Syracuse.
Brown's development has made it more difficult for teams to devote multiple defenders to Thomas, the All-American senior forward.
The Terps have become a more balanced offensive team since the freshmen — Brown, guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and center Brionna Jones — have asserted themselves. Jones (Aberdeen) didn't become a starter until two-thirds of the way through the season.
"They've gotten a lot better since that [first meeting]," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of the Terps on Wednesday. "That may have been the turning point in the season for Lexie Brown."
Maryland knew what it had when the season began — a star in Thomas, who had 24 double-doubles during the regular season. But it didn't know whether the freshmen would be able to provide enough complementary pieces around Thomas to be successful.
"You never know when a team is going to fully get it, and for us it was pretty late," Frese said.
The coach noted that her team has played with more urgency since losing to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals and realizing how badly it wanted to extend the season.
With the freshmen growing increasingly comfortable, fourth-seeded Maryland has won eight of its past nine games.
"They're very dangerous," McGraw said of the Terps, who hadn't been to a Final Four since the 2005-06 national championship season. "They're a team that has kind of hit their stride lately."
Frese — who began at Maryland the same year that Comcast Center opened — said Tuesday's win over Louisville "ranks up there all time" with her favorite Terps games. Maryland won on the Cardinals' home court.
"We still haven't come down from last night's high," Frese said.
Maryland took a charter flight home, arriving at about 4 a.m. Wednesday. That was after a postgame celebration in which team members danced and cut down the nets while wearing T-shirts reading "Net Worthy." Frese's family had driven nine hours from Iowa to attend the game.
Notre Dame secured its spot in Nashville with an 88-69 win over Baylor on Monday night. Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd scored 30 points.
At the Final Four, the Irish will be without leading rebounder Natalie Achonwa, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the victory.
McGraw said Achonwa inspired the team by giving them "a very spirited talk."
"There were no tears, there is no mourning," the coach said.
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