As injuries stacked up and the next big game always seemed just around the corner, Alyssa Thomas was a rock for the Maryland women's basketball team last season.
The 6-foot-2 forward averaged 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a junior and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year for the second straight year.
But in two games against Connecticut — this year's defending national champion and the Terps' opponent Friday at Comcast Center — Thomas was neutralized by the Huskies.
"I didn't feel the pressure last year," she said. "I think I just tried to force a lot and I didn't let the game come to me."
Thomas was held to 13 points in a 76-50 Sweet 16 loss that ended the Terps' season, after scoring 29 and 28 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
In the Terps' earlier meeting with the Huskies, a 63-48 loss on Dec. 3, Thomas was held to six points on 2-for-12 shooting.
The lesson was clear: If the Terps are to contend against UConn, they're going to need more options to take the focus off their star senior.
"We do have an inside-outside game and we do have guard play now," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "We can really get entries into the post and go outside, so it should free [Thomas] up."
The problems of the past have become a strength for the Terps, which is why Frese is about as confident as anyone can be when going against top-ranked UConn.
Guards Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley, who missed the UConn games with season-ending ACL injuries last year, are back. Senior center Essence Townsend also tore hers in an exhibition game last season, but now is healthy.
Adding to the team's improved depth are three freshmen who have already produced valuable minutes. Freshman center Brionna Jones, an Aberdeen graduate, contributed eight points and eight rebounds off the bench in the season-opening, 78-70 win over South Florida. First-year guards Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had 11 and 12 points, respectively.
In that game, Thomas only played 10 minutes due to foul trouble, but the freshmen more than made up for her absence.
"They were the difference," Frese said. "Those three stepped up and made a huge difference on the road."
Even with the heightened pressure of a marquee matchup at home, Frese had no doubt that the freshmen would also be playing critical minutes against the Huskies.
"All of them are going to play," she said.
That's a relief to Mincy, who said that many of Maryland's difficulties against UConn were due to exhaustion and a threadbare bench. In the second loss, the Terps' two backups who played went 0-for-7 shooting, while the Huskies received 25 points off the bench.
"Last year, a lot of our starters got tired. We didn't have that extra step," Mincy said. "With our depth, we have a lot of numbers. If someone gets tired, we have the next person who can come in and fill their spot."
After being bottled up against the Huskies, there was a question as to whether Thomas would prepare differently this time around. Mincy said she hadn't noticed a difference though, in practice or mindset.
"Alyssa is a competitor," Mincy said. "Not a lot has changed for her."
Maryland's two calling cards — consistent rebounding and an up-tempo offense — will continue to be the focus even though a fast pace might also benefit UConn, which has used a pressure defense and fast-break attack to win seven NCAA championships since 2000.
Still, Frese said she will need to strike a balance while managing her team's natural inclination to run.
"I think it's a blend," Frese said. "It's finding that pace of up and down, as well as when you need to really slow things down and get really good possessions."
Thomas said that the team has been preparing for this matchup ever since the Sweet 16 loss. They watched UConn's 76-57 win over Stanford Monday for tips on how to pressure the Huskies and they plan on taking advantage of more stringent NCAA hand-check rules to get to the foul line.
Though Thomas said she was approaching it "like every other night," she admitted that additions to the team would help in this game against UConn.
"Our depth is going to be a huge factor for us," Thomas said. "We can play five guards or go big. I'm excited this year knowing that our depth will play to our benefit."
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