LOUISVILLE — Despite the many accomplishments in the decorated career of Maryland women’s basketball star Alyssa Thomas, the Final Four had been elusive for the school’s career scoring leader until Tuesday night.
Only hours after being named first-team all-American for a second time, the senior forward scored a team-high 22 points with a game-high 13 rebounds and made a critical foul shot in the closing seconds to help the No. 4 seed Terrapins secure a 76-73 victory over No. 3 seed Louisville in the NCAA tournament’s round of eight in front of 14,002 at KFC Yum! Center.
Maryland advances to play undefeated Notre Dame, the top seed in the South Bend Region, Sunday in Nashville. In doing so they earned a second Final Four berth under Coach Brenda Frese, who again got the better of Cardinals Coach Jeff Walz.
Walz was an assistant in College Park when the Terrapins won the national title in 2006, and Frese was on the winning side when the schools met three seasons ago in the round of 32 at Comcast Center.
“We really got them to buy in to welcoming the environment, embracing it,” Frese said of her players. “Being excited by being able to silence [the crowd], being able to get them to boo against you and really just enjoy it. If this was three months ago, we wouldn’t have been prepared or be in this place, but to see this team grow, the trust level, the confidence level, was really special to be able to watch.”
The Terrapins (28-6) were able to keep the building reasonably quiet in the second half with a 20-4 run that included Thomas’s jumper that put Maryland ahead to stay, 46-45, with 13 minutes 47 seconds remaining. The Terrapins, who erased a seven-point second-half deficit, scored the next eight after that field goal, and when Thomas made both ends of a one-and-one, they were in front, 58-49.
The lead was 66-54 with 2:03 to play when the Cardinals surged back on the three-point shooting of senior guard Shoni Schimmel (game-high 31 points).
Schimmel made three in a row over 40 seconds to draw Louisville within one possession, 75-73, with five seconds to play. Thomas soon after made 1 of 2 foul shots, and Schimmel’s final attempt bounced off the rim as time expired, triggering a wild celebration on the court among Maryland players.
Schimmel “had hit back-to-back, crazy, wild shots,” Terrapins freshman point guard Lexie Brown said. “It was a great look, and all I could do was pray it didn’t go in, but when that buzzer sounded I took off running to go jump on the first teammate I could find.”
Brown finished with 20 points, six rebounds and four assists and made 9 of 10 from the foul line, where Maryland went 25 for 28, including 22 for 24 in the second half. The Terrapins’ final 14 points came from the free throw line, and in one stretch they made 10 in a row to keep Louisville from overtaking the lead.
Maryland won for the fourth time in a row, for the eighth time in nine games and for a 12th time in 14. It also dealt the Cardinals (33-5) just their second loss this season at KFC Yum! Center. Louisville’s only other loss at home in 19 games was to undefeated Connecticut, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We just couldn’t beat them at the free throw line,” Walz said. “They 25 of 28 from the free throw line. We go 11 of 13. We couldn’t get there enough, and that’s really where the game was won. I mean it’s real simple.”
The first half featured 12 lead changes and neither team was able to move in front by more than five points. Maryland made the first charge behind a pair of early three-pointers from senior guard Katie Rutan (12 points, 4 of 6 on three-pointers ). But the Cardinals countered by hitting three shots from beyond the arc during an 11-2 run to claim a four-point margin.
The Terrapins scored six in a row soon after officials assessed Louisville senior forward Asia Taylor a technical foul. Brown made the two free throws for Maryland and assisted on a layup by sophomore center Malina Howard before Thomas’s jumper.
But Thomas picked up her second personal foul with 2:57 left until the break, and she went to the bench for the remainder of the first half.
The Cardinals then scored eight of the last 10 points in the half, including six in a row culminating in Schimmel’s steal and layup, to go into the locker room with a 36-32 lead.
“Oh man, it’s something that I’ve been wanting for four years,” Thomas, named outstanding player in the Louisville Region, said of the Final Four. “But we’re not done yet. We’ve still got two more games, and hopefully we can get this national championship.”