COLLEGE PARK ——Alyssa Thomas, along with tens of thousands of others, watched over and again as her brother shattered the backboard. Devin Thomas' violent dunk in a high school basketball game two weeks ago was going viral on the Internet, and soon ESPN had promoted it to first among its top 10 plays.
For big sis, this just wasn't going to work. Not for Alyssa, who's the last person you would want to be around after she lost or became an afterthought in anything, much less to a family member. That spirit comes from mom Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas, who practically demanded her eldest daughter take up basketball at age 5 and gave no quarter even when they played Candy Land.
So with both mother and brother at Comcast Center several days later, Thomas did something about it. Saving her flair for the dramatic until the last possible second, Thomas blocked a shot as time expired to preserve a 63-61 victory over Duke that was the most gratifying this season for the Maryland women's basketball team.
Later that night, what's simply called The Block in and around College Park began circulating on ESPN's top plays, vaulting all the way to No. 1. Then in the top plays of the entire week, The Block surpassed the dunk, and as usual, Alyssa had gotten over on her brother.
"You should see when it comes to the holidays when we play cards at our house," she said. "It's pretty crazy in there."
Then this from Maryland coach Brenda Frese: "I'd put her up there as one of the most competitive players I've ever coached. Her will to win and do whatever it takes is just off the charts."
Thomas' block against the Blue Devils, for instance, concluded a game in which the spry forward had missed nine of 11 shots and committed five of Maryland's 19 turnovers. Earlier this week as the sixth-ranked Terps prepared for their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal tonight against Virginia, Thomas referenced that play as a defining moment in large part because she's not acclaimed for defense.
It's a pardonable oversight, though, in light of the way in less than two full seasons Thomas has gone from promising freshman to conference-leading scorer to the second sophomore in ACC history to be named Player of the Year — an honor she received Thursday. Her uncanny knack for the dramatic has been a bane to opponents as well as an inspiration to teammates.
"I see everything," second-team All-ACC junior forward Tianna Hawkins said of Thomas' many highlights. "We just wait until after the game to say, 'Dang, Alys, how'd you do that?'"
Just ask Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph, whose Yellow Jackets twice absorbed the best from Thomas and had no counterattack. In the first meeting, on Jan. 6, Thomas made the go-ahead jumper and bonus free throw with 17 seconds to play in a 77-74 victory during which Maryland erased a 20-point deficit.
Then a month later, Thomas had 23 points and 12 rebounds in a 64-56 road win as significant as any this season. With a sweep of the series, the Terps (25-4, 12-4) claimed the tiebreaker and thus the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament despite finishing even with Georgia Tech in the conference.
"She's grown tremendously," Hawkins said. "She's added the defensive side to her game. She's not all offense, so it's great to see her continue to improve her game, being that she works hard every day."
Lest anyone forget Thomas' versatility, it was on prominent display over the final two games of the regular season. In an 84-64 throttling of North Carolina, Thomas finished three assists short of a tripledouble, and during Sunday's season finale at North Carolina State, she had 24 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
Twenty-two of those points came in the second half, when she scored 16 in a row.
Thomas was the only Terp to score over 101/2 minutes in the second half, and she added four blocks and three steals.
"That's something my mom really focused on," said Thomas, who is averaging 16.7 points per game this season. "I wasn't the tallest growing up, but my mom knew I would grow. Didn't know how tall I would be, so she always put me at every position just to be a complete player and get a little bit of everything."
Thomas topped out at 6 feet 2, and when Frese first scouted her prized recruit from Harrisburg, Pa., during a tournament in Baltimore in summer 2008, infatuation immediately took hold.
Among Frese's favorite yarns is how she was torn between making that drive to Charm City and traveling to Argentina, where some of the country's elite high school players were participating in USA Basketball.
"I had heard phenomenal things about her, and I chose to stay home," Frese said. "Obviously well worth it."