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Maryland women’s basketball: It’s Final Four or bust for the Terrapins

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Even with the Final Four not for another five months, the Maryland women’s basketball players already are having wistful thoughts of New Orleans. The Crescent City is the site of the sport’s showcase event this season, and the fifth-ranked Terrapins say they fully expect to be there contending for the second national championship in program history and first since 2006.

Maryland came tantalizingly close to reaching the national semifinals one season ago. The Terrapins had dispatched Texas A&M, the reigning national champion, in the region semifinals; won a record 10th ACC tournament championship; and logged 30 wins for the fourth time since Coach Brenda Frese arrived in College Park in 2002.

So the 80-49 loss to Notre Dame in the region final — the Terrapins’ most lopsided defeat of the season — was something of a shock, and is fueling the team’s long-range goal this season.

“Of course,” senior forward Tianna Hawkins said when asked if failing to advance to this season’s Final Four would be considered a disappointment, “because we were so close last season. We know what it takes to get there. It’s just a matter of us going out every night and showing it.”

The Terrapins have a number of reasons for such optimism, starting with guard-forward Alyssa Thomas. Last season, Thomas became the first sophomore in program history to be named ACC player of the year, and she received national acclaim shortly thereafter by being rewarded with a first-team all-American selection.

Thomas led the conference in scoring (17.2 points per game), was second in rebounding (8.0) and produced a signature moment by blocking a shot as time expired to preserve a 63-61 regular season victory over Duke before 15,150 at Comcast Center. She’s also part of a junior class that has Maryland well positioned for next season, as well as this one that commences Friday night against Mount St. Mary’s.

“Just to almost be there and not make [the Final Four], I know we definitely want to go that extra mile this year,” said Thomas, who on Wednesday was named preseason all-American and is one of four starters back for the Terrapins. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to push past the Elite Eight.”

Classmate Laurin Mincy is another featured player whose production swelled last season, especially during the NCAA tournament. The guard combined to score 45 points in the second and third rounds, and this season her role is set to expand from scorer to primary ballhandler.

Mincy has been playing point guard in the preseason since Brene Moseley, the presumptive starter at the position, tore the ACL in her left knee during a scrimmage on Oct. 21. The sophomore, who was first-team All-Met as a junior at Paint Branch High School, had surgery on Friday and is out for the season.

With Mincy running the offense, shooting guard Katie Rutan becomes that much more important. The long-distance shooting specialist is a junior who sat out last season after transferring from Xavier, where she was named to the Atlantic 10 all-rookie team in 2010 and twice made seven three-pointers in one game.

Frese also may ask more of 5-foot-9 freshman Chloe Pavlech, who was ranked among the top 25 point guards by several high school recruiting services. Pavlech averaged 12.2 points and 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists as senior at Sycamore High in Cincinnati.

“We have a lot to uphold being an Elite Eight team last year,” Mincy said. “But with our starting point guard down, we have a lot of work to do this season.”

Thomas also has been playing point guard in spots during practice, and with her in the back court, Maryland can field a lineup with no player under 6 feet. It’s a tall lineup that’s tactically suited to the Terrapins’ concentration on rebounding and second-chance points.

Last season, Maryland finished second in the country in rebounding margin (plus-12.9) thanks largely to the front court of Hawkins, who led the nation in field goal percentage (62.3), Thomas and 6-4 center Alicia DeVaughn. As a sophomore last season, DeVaughn was selected to the all-ACC defensive team after starting all but one game.

That trio has provided plenty of advice to 6-4 freshman Malina Howard, who’s next in line to continue Maryland’s tradition of robust interior play. Howard is the centerpiece of Frese’s most recent recruiting class and chose Maryland over other established national powers, including Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame.

“The big thing when you come to Maryland is you come here to win,” Frese said. “You come here to win championships, and we all know the bitter taste of our ending last year, and we have really high goals for ourselves.”

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