In her most brilliant moments in a Maryland women’s basketball uniform, Alyssa Thomas transforms into an overwhelming brute force. Offensive rebounds are vacuumed into her hands. She rips through contact like high school football players through paper pep signs, and the ensuing putback shots seem to always drop through the net.
Second-ranked Notre Dame faced such a performance from Thomas on Monday night at Comcast Center, offering little resistance as the all-American forward piled up 29 points and 12 rebounds and casually broke two more program records along the way. But the eighth-ranked Terrapins had dug themselves so deep an early hole that not even a superhuman second half from Thomas could hoist them out. Despite erasing a 22-point deficit, their upset bid fell short in an 87-83 loss.
“I thought we showed a lot of character, especially when we were down, to be able to scratch and claw and give ourselves a chance in the second half,” Coach Brenda Frese said, before quickly sliding into more critical territory. “We lost this game in the first half.”
Before Thomas ignited the announced crowd of 7,668 with a series of layups, Maryland looked like just another doormat for the unbeaten Fighting Irish. As Frese stood on the sideline, arms crossed in disappointment, the Terps stumbled to a 41-19 deficit with four minutes left in the first half.
Of Notre Dame’s 18 previous victories, only one came by single digits and none featured any late-game drama. The Fighting Irish’s diverse arsenal of slashers like Jewell Loyd (game-high 31 points on Monday), experienced leaders like Kayla McBride (20 points) and outside threats like Michaela Mabrey (13 points) had buried ranked teams before and hoped to do it again. Slowly, though, with energy unusual for a team facing such a large deficit, Maryland began to chip away.
“We were disappointed in our defense, obviously, to start the game,” Frese said. “I thought we defended, quite honestly, harder in practice than how we started. We came out with a better mind-set, a lot harder ball pressure and started trusting ourselves from a defensive end.”
As halftime came and went, the Terps made their move. Thomas, who opened the game missing 7 of 8 shots, became unstoppable inside. The Fighting Irish tried fronting her. They tried face-guarding her, too. Nothing worked. And when Thomas whipped a pass around two defenders and found center Alicia DeVaughn (16 points), Maryland capped its own 41-19 run to tie the game at 60.
“Thomas was unbelievable,” Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said.
But Notre Dame regained a modest lead, and Maryland could never quite summit the final hill. When Thomas hit one free throw with less than four minutes left to pull within one point, Mabrey swished a three-pointer on the other end. Loyd answered DeVaughn’s layup with a jumper. The Terps (16-3, 4-2 ACC) desperately needed a stop. It never came.
“I think it’s on us,” said Thomas, who along the way became Maryland’s all-time leader in made free throws and attempted field goals. “I think if we would have come out with the intensity that we started in the first half at the end, I think we would have gotten them, it would have a been a different game. But credit to them.”
How else could the Terps approach the aftermath of their second straight loss but with regret? They had been frustrated over Thursday’s 86-72 upset loss at Virginia, and Monday offered the chance for redemption. To overcome such a deficit against a national title contender, with two road games ahead, might have erased everything that festered over the weekend.
Then McBride splashed a gutsy step-back jumper for Notre Dame with 11 seconds left, and the game — once spiraling out of control for Maryland, then so enticingly within reach — was iced. Later, the Terps traced everything back to the start
“The biggest thing for us is we have to jump out early,” Frese said. “These slow starts are hindering us in terms of our performance.”