NASHVILLE — Nearly one month ago, the Maryland women’s basketball team was faced with a decision that by all accounts was going to define its season.
In the gloomy aftermath of a loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, Coach Brenda Frese challenged her players to start trusting one another unconditionally or risk becoming an afterthought in the NCAA tournament.
“We did a lot of soul-searching,” senior forward Alyssa Thomas said.
The Terrapins (28-6) have not lost since and now find themselves in the Final Four, where they are set to play undefeatedNotre Dame on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. Fourth-seeded Maryland has appeared in the national semifinals four times, including twice in Frese’s 12 seasons in College Park, and it is the lowest seed left in the tournament.
The Fighting Irish (36-0) are making their fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four, having advanced to the national championship game in 2011 and 2012.
“I really think it was a wakeup call,” redshirt junior guard Laurin Mincy said of Maryland’s 73-70 loss to sixth-seeded North Carolina in the ACC tournament. “Obviously we came in and thought we were going to beat Carolina and have a good ACC run, but it didn’t turn out that way. I’m glad that it happened for the NCAA tournament and glad that we got everything corrected before then.”
Maryland has won four in a row, eight of nine and 11 of 13 and is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2005-06, when the Terrapins captured their first and only national championship. Several players from that team are expected to attend Sunday’s game.
Undefeated Connecticut, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, plays No. 2 seed Stanford in the other national semifinal. The Huskies have won eight national championships to match Tennessee for most all-time.
“To some extent, I feel like Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA pageant,” Frese said. “Everybody is rooting for the other two. Our job is to be able to crash the party.”
The Terrapins reached this point by beating long odds in the Louisville Region. They dispatched top-seeded Tennessee, 73-62, in the Sweet 16 before outlasting No. 3 seed Louisville, 76-73, in front of a crowd of 14,002 at KFC Yum! Center. Louisville had lost only one other time in 19 home games this season, and that was to Connecticut.
Maryland has lost two straight to ACC newcomer Notre Dame, most recently Jan. 27 at Comcast Center. In that game, the Terrapins fell behind by 22 points but thanks to Thomas came back to take the lead in the second half before the 2001 national champions escaped, 87-83.
Thomas had 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals with one turnover.
“Alyssa Thomas was unstoppable,” Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said. “She was phenomenal in the second half. She rebounded, she scored, she did everything she wanted to. She played like the all-American that she is, and I don’t know that you can guard her.”
The Final Four had been the only blank spot on Thomas’s sterling résumé until this season. But she compiled 55 points and 26 rebounds in two Louisville Region games, earning region most outstanding player honors and willing Maryland into the sport’s showcase event with a basket or rebound when it counted most.
Thomas, the three-time ACC player of the year, is Maryland’s career scoring leader and needs one rebound to break a tie with Crystal Langhorne for first in that category. She is one of four players in NCAA history with at least six career triple-doubles, including four this season, and her 66 double-doubles are a program record.
The three-time all-American had 24 points in that transformational loss to North Carolina and was the only reason Maryland was even competitive in its ACC tournament farewell. The Terrapins are joining the Big Ten next season.
“I think it was the one thing our whole team was looking for,” redshirt sophomore point guard Brene Moseley said. “I’m not saying we want to lose, but sometimes you’ve got to learn from a loss, and I think if anything that was our biggest lesson this season after that loss because we came together. I feel like for us at this point we’re peaking at the perfect moment, and I think that’s the scary part but that’s the most exciting part because we don’t know what to expect, but it keeps getting better and better.”
Feinstein: Florida got fancy and paid for it
Jenkins: Notre Dame isn’t an underdog
Video: Final Four by the numbers