COLLEGE PARK — It's a recurring scene this season: Relentless Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas is stretched out on the floor after tumbling for a loose ball or colliding with a defender. Her teammates reach to gingerly pull her up.
But the real helping hand — and a critical one for Maryland's NCAA tournament fortunes — comes when her fellow Terps shoot well enough to prevent defenses from swarming the three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year with impunity.
Thomas is the undisputed leader of the fourth-seeded Terps (24-6), who open their NCAA tournament Sunday at Comcast Center against 13th-seeded Army (25-7). It is Thomas who attracts the attention of television cameras, autograph seekers and assorted defenses often geared to limit her possessions. But Maryland needs sizable contributions from its secondary scorers — the "supporting cast" as coach Brenda Frese called them — to divert attention from its career scoring leader, who is often bumped and occasionally held by defenses.
"We want to relieve the pressure to where they can't double-team or triple-team [Thomas] all the time," said Katie Rutan, a senior guard who leads the Terps in 3-point shooting.
A 19-point loss at Duke on Feb. 17 provided the Terps with a cautionary tale. They shot 32.4 percent, including 5-for-21 on 3-point attempts, and Thomas was harassed into a 5-for-16 night from the floor, one of her worst performances of the season.
Afterward, inside Cameron Indoor Stadium's cramped visitors locker room, Frese clutched a stat sheet in her left hand and turned her right palm upward in a "What gives?" gesture.
"Guards, I'm sorry we can't go 5-for-21 with wide-open shots," Frese said in a postgame scene captured by the "Under the Shell" Maryland reality show and recounted this week by the coach and players.
After Thomas, three of Maryland's next four leading scorers — guards Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (9.8 points per game) and Lexie Brown (9.3 points per game), and center Brionna Jones (7.1) — are freshmen.
"They've had to kind of evolve and grow into those roles," Frese said in an interview this past week. "After Alyssa, they might think, 'Do I really have to show up and consistently perform?' That's a different role for most freshmen coming in."
The loss at Duke was part of the sometimes uncomfortable process of growing up. The three Terps freshman combined for 9-for-31 shooting against the Blue Devils.
"It's important to remember that these freshmen had never played at Duke," Frese said. "As much as you try to simulate it, it's not the same. Now hopefully all these experiences prepare us for the postseason."
Last season, Maryland was thinned by season-ending knee injuries to guards Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley and center Essence Townsend. The lack of depth left Thomas exposed.
This season's supporting cast has had its moments. Two of Maryland's best games came on rare occasions when Thomas (18.9 points per game) did not lead the team in scoring.
Against Syracuse on Feb. 2, Brown, scored 31 points to complement a triple-double by Thomas in an 89-64 Maryland victory.
On Feb. 20, Rutan (6.9 points per game) loosened up Florida State's zone defense with eight 3-pointers, and Thomas recorded another triple-double in an 87-77 win.
Thomas has grown accustomed to all sorts of defenses. "She's seen two people running at her," Frese said. "They'll sag off of her and make her shoot it. Or they'll get physical with her and really get up on her. She's seen a box-and-one, a triangle-and-two, a zone."
Through it all, Thomas — as introverted off the court as she is aggressive on it — rarely shows frustration. She has matured since a memorable second-round NCAA tournament game two years ago in which Louisville was particularly physical against her.
"I remember in transition they tried to kind of pull her down, get the officials to make some calls against her and put her on the bench," Frese said of the Cardinals, who held Thomas to six points.
Rutan remembers thinking Louisville's defense against Thomas "was getting a little out of control. They were just very physical any time she would go towards the lane. She was getting not just one body hit, but two or three body hits."
Said Thomas: "I think that was their game plan, just to try to take me out of my game early. It definitely worked. That was my sophomore year and I was just starting to see defenses like that. I think I've seen everything by now that you could possibly play."
Maryland beat Louisville in that game, 72-68, because other players contributed. That's a message that resonates with the Terps, who wore gold T-shirts during Monday's NCAA tournament selection show that read: "It's amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit."
Sunday they'll be facing an Army team that won the Patriot League tournament to earn its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006. If the Terps advance, they will face the Penn-Texas winner at Comcast Center on Tuesday night. Texas (21-11) is the fifth seed and Penn (22-6) is seeded 12th.
The Terps are trying to advance to their first Final Four since the national championship season of 2005-06. But they don't want Thomas — who admits she's "not a big fan of cameras and microphones and all that" — to feel the strain on or off the floor.
"I always ask for her autograph," said Rutan, who lives in a suite with Thomas and two other players. "She always says no."
twitter.com/sunjeffbarkerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun