By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 10:50 PM
Several summers ago, Maryland women's basketball Coach Brenda Frese was weighing whether to travel abroad to scout some of America's most accomplished high school players at a tournament in Argentina or to stay local for a far less glamorous event in Baltimore.
After some anxious moments of vacillation, Frese decided on the short trip up Interstate 95 so she could get a first glimpse of Alyssa Thomas, a Harrisburg, Pa., prep standout who by the end of her senior year would become a first-team all-American and the centerpiece of the Terrapins' highly regarded freshman class.
"I saw her in warmups, and I was like, 'Oh my goodness,' " Frese said. "I mean, the decision paid off right then and there not to go and do the USA Basketball thing and to go see her because we got a huge jump on her in the recruiting process."
In her first season with 15th-ranked Maryland (14-3, 1-2 ACC), Thomas has validated her coach's foresight by taking to the college game with uncommon alacrity. The supremely skilled guard-forward has started 16 of 17 games, leads the Terrapins in minutes (26.4 per game), points (13.4 per game) and steals (2.4 per game) and is second in rebounding (7.1 per game). She also is averaging 1.4 assists, showing an adaptability that has Frese comfortable entrusting Thomas to handle the ball on the fast break or moving her to the low block in half-court sets.
Thomas is first among ACC freshmen in rebounding and second in scoring and steals. She has won conference rookie of the week three times, most recently this week after she had 18 points and a career-high 13 rebounds in last Thursday's 78-69 loss to Boston College and 21 points in Sunday's 80-59 victory over Clemson.
Perhaps the most definitive testament of her value to the team came in Maryland's 71-64 loss at No. 3 Duke on Jan. 6, when Thomas played all but two minutes in the first ACC game of her career. Even though she missed 12 of 15 shots amid the din of 5,000-plus at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Thomas grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and added three steals and two assists. Her 11 points contributed to the first of what figures to be many double-doubles.
"She's somebody who's never played [like] a freshman," Terrapins junior center Lynetta Kizer said. "When we look at her, we look at her as one of our leaders. You can tell where she still has those young moments on the court. Maybe in the first couple of games she was a little shaky, but she's really coming on. She just motivates everybody in her own kind of way. That's one person I would never question what she brings to the table every day because she's passionate about basketball."
Thomas's all-around game has invoked comparisons to former Maryland star Marissa Coleman, one of the most decorated players in school history. Coleman was proficient in both the back court and front court while flourishing during her freshman season in 2005-06, when the Terrapins won the national championship.
In the title game, Coleman scored four of Maryland's eight points in overtime, made two foul shots in the final 13 seconds and collected the final rebound to seal a 78-75 win against Duke. That performance capped a season in which she was named ACC rookie of the week five times, tying a school record that appears well within reach for Thomas.
"Looking at Marissa's experience here and her success, I definitely would love to be where she is now," Thomas said. "So I'm going to do whatever it takes to work as hard as she did."
Right now, that means becoming more at ease with the physical demands of conference play, which continues on Friday night against Virginia (11-8, 0-3) in Charlottesville. Another area of attention for Thomas is extending her shooting boundaries to beyond the three-point line, where she has one attempt this season.
Still, Thomas is fourth among Maryland's regulars in field goal percentage (.484), and she has been a major contributor in the Terrapins' robust showings along the interior. Maryland is tops in the ACC in offensive rebound percentage (48.5 percent) and second in defensive rebound percentage (69.7), and has had more rebounds than its opponent in all but two games.
"Just to watch her competitiveness and her versatility on the floor. I mean, the fact that she can rebound the ball, lead the break, stop and pop on a dime, she's just extremely versatile," Frese said. "Her ceiling is extremely high. As she extends her range, I think the sky's the limit in terms of measuring her against some of the great players we've had here."