LOUISVILLE — The headline matchup going into Sunday afternoon’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game between No. 4 seed Maryland and top-seeded Tennessee was Terrapins senior forward Alyssa Thomas vs. Lady Vols senior guard Meighan Simmons. Thomas is the three-time ACC player of the year and Maryland’s all-time scoring leader, men or women, while Simmons has won two SEC player of the year awards.
Thomas emerged with the more impactful performance, scoring a career-high 33 points and grabbing a team-high 13 rebounds to carry Maryland to a 73-62 win in which the Lady Vols never got closer than eight in the second half. Simmons, meantime, had 31 points but missed 9 of 13 shots in the first half with the Terrapins using multiple players to guard the 5-foot-9 senior, and she spent an inordinate amount of time on the bench after intermission when Tennessee needed its premier defenders on the court.
“I think the most special thing about Alyssa, when you talk about everything that’s been written and everything that we’ve seen, is just her ability to obviously the higher the stakes, she elevates her game,” Frese said. “I think the thing that separates her is her ability to elevate everybody else on our team around her. They rise to her level.”
Almost every time the Lady Vols tried to make a push, Thomas stemmed the rally with a rebound or field goal. When Tennessee scored six in a row to get within 44-33 early in the second half, for instance, Thomas scored a layup. When the Lady Vols cut it to 54-44 with 9 minutes 29 seconds left in regulation, Thomas collected a rebound and scored on the putback.
Thomas either scored or assisted on 17 straight points for Maryland in the second half in shooting 14 for 25 with three assists and no turnovers. It’s the third time this season the two-time all-American was turnover free in a game.
“We knew we could get out on them in transition and just get easy baskets,” Thomas said.
Simmons, meanwhile, missed 13 of 22 shots in all and had five turnovers with one assist. She did made all four of Tennessee’s three-pointers, though none came when Maryland was charging ahead on the strength of a 16-4 flurry in the first half.
“Me and Cierra [Burdick] had said in an earlier media session that we have so much respect for” Thomas, Simmons said. “She one of the top [players] as of now to go to the WNBA. She’s worked really, really hard. Really she outworked us and out-muscled us us today. Like I said, we have the utmost respect for her.”