COLLEGE PARK — As far as memories go, there wasn't much worth remembering the last time Maryland was here, fending off the bright lights of ESPN television cameras as it fought desperately to keep its season going past the NCAA tournament's first weekend.
The Terps lost to their Big East visitor (Georgetown), lost a starter to a devastating injury (Diandra Tchatchouang), and lost whatever hopes they had of reestablishing themselves among the NCAA's elite.
But lurking under the blanketing disappointment was a glimmer of hope from a freshman whose shooting stroke was always an asset, even if her knees were sometimes a trouble. On Monday night, Laurin Mincy — now a year older, a season better and a whole lot stronger — made sure this postseason run wouldn't end at Comcast Center.
The sophomore scored 24 points and blocked Louisville guard Becky Burke's potential game-tying 3-pointer on the Cardinals' final possession to help the Terps hold on for a 72-68 second-round win.
"Laurin loves playing," said coach Brenda Frese, whose Terps secured their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2009, when Louisville ended their shot at a Final Four in a 77-60 blowout. "The bigger the game, the bigger she plays. You saw that last year in terms of it."
Mincy was the only non-starter to score in double figures (12 points) in last season's final game, a crushing second-round loss to Georgetown in College Park. It was only one game in a season full of them, but it was a powerful portent for a guard whose senior-year knee injury in high school had derailed any hopes of a normal start to her college career.
This summer, Mincy did things a little differently. Fully healed, she labored tirelessly as she restored the picture-perfect form and lock-you-down defense that had made her a McDonald's All-American at University High School in Newark, N.J.
"I saw her work harder than I'd seen her work her entire freshman year in the few months that we had in the summer," guard Kim Rodgers said. "You can tell it's paid off."
Take Monday night, for instance. Mincy went 6-for-10 from the field, 10-for-13 from the free-throw line and finished with six rebounds.
Her defense on a frantic final Cardinals possession ended whatever hopes former Frese assistant Jeff Walz had at again finishing off the Terps' season. As Burke rose for a 3-pointer, Mincy kept close, shot her arms skyward and felt the ball just graze off a fingertip. It landed safely in the arms of forward Tianna Hawkins (15 points, 14 rebounds), who made one of two free throws with 0.5 seconds left to ice the game.
"I wouldn't have missed it that bad if she didn't get a hand on it," Burke said.
Mincy had 14 points in a first half that saw the Terps fall behind 6-0 in a forgettable start, respond to lead by as many as five points then go into intermission up two.
The second half wasn't any more relaxing. Louisville led 64-59 until a 9-0 Terps run, keyed by Mincy's defense and helped by her touch at the free throw line, put them ahead for good.
After the Cardinals pulled within two, 70-68, on an Asia Taylor jumper, Mincy's powerful blow-by move at the top of the key – surging past a Louisville defender as she pushed of the same left knee it once hurt to walk on – drew a crucial foul with 34 seconds left.
Mincy hit the first free throw, helping ensure star player Alyssa Thomas' poor night (six points) wouldn't impede a trip to Raleigh, N.C., for the Sweet 16.
Said Frese: "You look at what she's been able to do all season long in terms of her consistency and now, I told her, she's taken her game to a whole 'nother level, which speaks volumes of Laurin in terms of her competitiveness, her fire and the fact that she wants to continue playing in this tournament."