So it went for the two-time ACC player of the year, and No. 5 seed Michigan State was all but incidental on Thomas’s way to a game-high 28 points that sent the Terrapins to a 74-49 victory. They advanced to the round of 16 in the Bridgeport (Conn.) Region, where they’ll face top-seeded Connecticut at noon Saturday.
“I think it speaks volumes to Alyssa when the bigger the game, the bigger the stage and the moment, just how she rises to the occasion,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “I’ve said this before: The most competitive player I’ve ever coached. You see her will our team into her mind-set, and you continue to see that time and time again.”
In winning for the fourth time in five games, Maryland (26-7) advanced to the region semifinals for a second consecutive season and the fifth time in Frese’s 11 years in College Park. The Terrapins made it out of the first weekend for the fourth time in their last five NCAA appearances and improved to 21-7 in the tournament since Frese’s arrival.
The Terrapins shot 50 percent, including 7 of 13 from three-point range, and got 18 points from junior guard Katie Rutan and 12 points and a game-high 11 rebounds from forward Tianna Hawkins in the final home game of her distinguished career.
This night, though, was all about Thomas, who made 12 of 18 shots from the field in addition to going 2 for 2 from the free throw line and adding three rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal before departing to standing ovation with 4 minutes 8 seconds remaining. By then Thomas, who made two three-pointers in a game for the first time this season, had practically by herself staked Maryland to a 69-42 lead.
Thomas also factored in significantly to the Terrapins’ 20-6 flurry in the first half that had them well on their way to a 10th win in 12 NCAA tournament games at Comcast Center and kept their all-time record perfect (3-0) against Michigan State, which will be a regular opponent when Maryland joins the Big Ten after next season.
Maryland first gained separation when Hawkins collected an offensive rebound and scored on a putback, and Rutan sank the first of her three three-pointers. Then Thomas got her hand in a passing lane, gained control of the ball and converted an uncontested layin for a 17-9 lead.
Spartans Coach Suzy Merchant called a timeout almost immediately with 12:20 left until the break, but Maryland responded with 13 of the ensuing 17 points. Thomas was responsible for eight of those, including one basket while weaving through three defenders and finishing with a spinning shot off the glass with her off-hand.
Michigan State (25-9) tried guarding Thomas with multiple defenders, but the switches had little impact on the ACC’s second-leading scorer during the regular season who is averaging nearly 29 points over her last four games. Thomas has not scored fewer than 26 points during that time.
In building a 34-23 margin at the break, Maryland also clamped down defensively, limiting the Big Ten tournament runner-up to 39 percent shooting overall and 3 for 16 from three-point range. The Spartans entered making 32 percent from beyond the arc.
The Terrapins forced 16 turnovers, had 10 steals and held a 20-10 advantage in points off turnovers. They also shot 15 free throws to two for Michigan State and owned a 39-25 advantage in rebounding.
“I joke with Coach B that it’s the Wilson balls,” said Thomas, whose torrid scoring stretch began with the first triple-double in ACC tournament history in the quarterfinals March 8. “It’s tournament time, and you don’t want to go home. You’ve got to bring your best game every night.”
●CONNECTICUT 77, VANDERBILT 44: In Storrs, Conn., Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 22 points and the Huskies (31-4) advanced to the round of 16 for the 20th consecutive season. The Commodores finished 21-12.