Commentary

Thomas lifts Terps to second round

Injury-depleted Michigan State, Maryland will meet Monday

Originally Published: March 23, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It was almost like holding out a fresh-baked baguette to someone stuck on a carb-free diet.

Every few minutes in Saturday's first-round game at the Comcast Center, Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri would dispatch a new batch of players to take their turn on the court. Sometimes it was a group of three or four players, other times a full five-player line change befitting a school whose men's hockey team reached No. 1 this season. The public address announcer sounded like an auctioneer trying to squeeze in all the names.

As the Bobcats beat a well-worn path to the scorer's table, Maryland might as well have sent it postcards.

[+] EnlargeAlyssa Thomas
Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY SportsQuinnipiac's mass substitutions tested Maryland's lack of depth early. Alyssa Thomas countered with 29 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in 38 minutes.

Hope all is well. Can't wait to see you again next season.

As long as the rules limit teams to five players on the court at any one time, the Terrapins believe they have the numbers they need. Saturday was the first step.

Down by as many as nine points in the first half against Quinnipiac, the Northeast Conference champion that hoped to become just the seventh No. 13 seed to win a first-round game, No. 4 seed Maryland rallied for a 72-52 win. The reward is a second-round game against fifth-seeded Michigan State for a place in the Sweet 16 and the unofficial championship of college basketball's walking wounded.

Maryland's game notes still include the following hopeful preseason sentiment from its coach.

"This year's team really has a chance to do some special things," Brenda Frese said. "If we can stay healthy and master some of the stuff we're working on, we can play with anyone."

One part of that equation proved out of her control. There were more Terrapins in sweat suits than uniforms on the bench when Saturday's game began. They lost their projected starting backcourt of Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy before the season was a month old, along with a valuable frontcourt reserve in Essence Townsend. A starter in their stead for the first half of the season, freshman Tierney Pfirman joined them and remains sidelined by illness.

Only seven players who started the season remained in uniform against Quinnipiac, along with a walk-on recruited from the volleyball team in January.

The contrast looked like it might doom the Terrapins on Saturday, sure to be worn down by all those alternating fresh legs for the Bobcats. The underdog hit an early 3-point vein, and the favorite looked like a team that didn't have a point guard as it struggled to find any offensive rhythm in the opening minutes. With the score 21-12 in Quinnipiac's favor, it seemed worth looking up the limited historical success of No. 13 seeds.

At which point came the reminder that the more players Maryland loses, the more roles Alyssa Thomas will play.

Thomas finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals in 38 minutes, and that line doesn't even do her justice. She was the will behind Maryland's run to reclaim the lead and take control. The first half ended with three consecutive possessions in which she collected a defensive rebound on one end, sprinted ahead of most of the defense and either finished herself or found a look for a teammate.

[+] EnlargeMaryland Celebration
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyAll five Maryland starters played at least 30 minutes Saturday, and only three other Terps saw playing time.

Quinnipiac had a lot more bodies at its disposal. Nobody has one quite like Maryland does with Thomas.

No teammate is in a better position to understand what Thomas brings to the team than Katie Rutan, the fourth-year junior who played her first two seasons at Xavier alongside Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips.

"Alyssa, it's hard to describe her because she does so many things," Rutan said. "She can be a point guard, she can be a shooting guard, she can be a wing, she can be a forward. She literally is what I would call a complete player, with her size and everything. It's just amazing at how athletic she is. I've never played with anyone like her before."

Quinnipiac liked its position down just four points at halftime, but the tide had already turned. For just as Maryland still has Thomas, it also has the best rebounding numbers of any team in a major conference.

As Maryland's defensive pressure increased late in the first half and throughout the second half, Quinnipiac missed more and more shots. The Bobcats finished with the same number of offensive rebounds as their opponents, but it took them 57 missed shots to get there, compared to 38 missed shots for the Terrapins. In addition to Thomas, Alicia DeVaughn had 17 rebounds, Tianna Hawkins had 16 rebounds, and Rutan had 11 rebounds, a total the 3-point specialist couldn't recall matching even in high school.

Maryland was supposed to make an NEC team look overmatched on the boards, but it still had to go out and do it.

"Rebounding is something we take to heart," DeVaughn said. "We work on it in practice, and we know we should dominate every game by outrebounding any opponent that we play. Rebounding is something that we know we can do, and that's just something that can't be taken away from us."

After the game, Rutan sat with her legs propped up on a chair, each limb completely encased in its own device to stimulate blood flow and improve recovery. The rest of the players lounged on a couch as they watched the game between Michigan State and Marist. There was plenty of space to stretch out. What you see is what you get, five, maybe six, players who have accomplished more than could reasonably be expected.

"The mindset is playing for each other, to know that we have each other's back," DeVaughn said. "To know that everyone that puts on this Maryland jersey -- we're playing for each other. It's just the love, the sisterhood that we have because we know that outside these uniforms, outside Maryland, nobody is looking for us to do good or anything."

[+] EnlargeCasey Dulin
Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY SportsJasmine Thomas was one of three Spartans to play all 40 minutes Saturday.

Michigan State knows the feeling. The Spartans advanced to the second round with a 55-47 win against Marist in a game that featured a lot of talent in the wrong kind of clothes.

The Spartans were without 6-foot-7 third-year post Madison Williams and freshmen Branndais Agee and Aerial Powers, all of whom coach Suzy Merchant said would have vied for major minutes and possibly starting jobs had they avoided season-ending injuries -- Williams and Powers before the season and Agee after just five appearances.

That wasn't going to get the Big Ten team much sympathy from Marist, which lost Vanderbilt transfer Tori Jarosz, projected to be the MAAC's best player, and 6-5 center Delaney Hollenbeck to season-ending injuries in November. But it shaped the season for the Spartans.

"I do think it's affected our ability and our rotation," Merchant said. "At the same time, though, the positive piece to it is that they can play without wondering if they're coming out. They can play through mistakes. I think sometimes when you try to have too big of a rotation, it's hard to buy in. You want to be out there."

Enter someone like Annalise Pickrel. The junior who averaged barely 10 minutes per game her first two seasons broke out as a key contributor in expanded minutes this season, a 6-3 winger with 3-point range and handle. But she was almost a non-factor in the Big Ten tournament, hitting just five field goals in three games. On a team with depth, perhaps she slips in the rotation. Against a Marist team playing five guards, Merchant needed to go small and agile. That meant Kiana Johnson, Jasmine Thomas and Klarissa Bell all had to play 40 minutes. It meant she needed Pickrel too, and the junior responded with 14 points, including four 3-pointers, and drew the biggest smile out of her coach when she drew a charge.

Quinnipiac -- the only team in action Saturday that stayed relatively healthy this season, at least healthy enough to play 10 players on a regular basis -- had reason to leave with its head held high.

"It's so special because we played everybody," Fabbri said of a 30-3 final record. "Because we had a talented team with depth, and everyone was able to contribute to a win. And I think this year's team was an example of being a team and playing everybody and not just leaning on a couple of kids, three or four kids, to always get it done, night in and night out."

It doesn't always go that way. It doesn't often go that way in this sport. The rest of the teams in College Park made do with playing everyone they had.

Maryland and Michigan State have as much reason as anyone to wonder what might have been this season. But Monday night, they play for a chance to be one of 16 teams wondering what might still be.

"I'm not tired," Thomas said. "That's something you don't think about. If you think about that, that's just showing weakness. We have a lot of basketball left to play. So I'm not tired until the end, until the season's over."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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