Alyssa Thomas tallies 28 as Terps advance to Sweet 16

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Quite by design, Alyssa Thomas is playing her best basketball of the season when it matters most.

Thomas scored 28 points and Maryland defeated Michigan State 74-49 Monday night to advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA women's tournament for a second straight year.

Beginning with the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament opener against Wake Forest, Thomas has scored 32, 26, 29 and 28 points over her last four games. The 6-foot-2 junior was dominant from the start in this one, scoring 18 to provide the third-seeded Terrapins with a 34-23 halftime lead and take the spirit out of the Spartans.

"Alyssa Thomas won the game in the first half," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "The game was over in the first half when she took control."

Thomas had an exceptional regular season, earning her second straight ACC Player of the Year award. But in the postseason she's raised her game to a higher level.

"It's tournament time. You don't want to go home, so you've got to bring your best game every night," Thomas said.

The fourth-seeded Terrapins (26-7) will face top seed Connecticut in the Bridgeport Regional semifinals. Maryland, which reached the round of eight a year ago, lost to UConn 63-48 on Dec. 3.

"Both teams are a lot different now than they were then," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said.

Especially Thomas, who went 2 for 12 from the floor in that game. It's a safe bet she will better those numbers in the rematch.

"We were talking about it as a staff, just how dominating she's been in postseason play," Frese said. "I think it speaks volumes to Alyssa -- the bigger the stage, the bigger the moment, just how she rises to the occasions. She's the most competitive player I've ever coached."

Thomas went 12 for 18 from the floor, hitting both her 3-point tries and her only two foul shots. She was pulled with 4:08 left, ending her bid to surpass her career high of 32 points.

Annalise Pickrel and Becca Mills each scored 12 for No. 5 seed Michigan State (25-9). The Spartans' two leading scorers, Klarissa Bell and Jasmine Thomas, combined for six points.

"That's not the competitive team that we've had," Merchant said. "It just seemed like we were kind of whipped. We were just mentally tired, and we just were not that aggressive, attacking team that we've been. ... We were better than what we showed and I know Brenda knows that. But unfortunately, everybody out there didn't see that tonight."

After being eliminated by Louisville in the first round at College Park a year ago, Michigan State was seeking to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2009. But the Spartans went 3 for 16 from 3-point range and did not get to the foul line until there was just over 4 minutes left in the game.

The closest Michigan State got in the second half was 36-27. Tianna Hawkins then made a layup to spark a 10-3 Maryland run that Thomas capped with a 3-pointer and a layup for a 46-30 advantage.

"When we cut it to nine there, I thought, 'OK, let's go,' but we had some blank stares out there," Merchant said. "We just didn't have anything tonight."

The margin swelled to 29 points with 5:25 left.

Katie Rutan scored 18 for the Terrapins, who improved to 15-3 in NCAA tournament games on their home court. Maryland trailed only once -- at 2-0.

The Terps led 34-23 at halftime behind Thomas and a defense that limited Michigan State to 1-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc.

Thomas was on her game early, hitting her first five shots to stake Maryland to a 19-11 lead. She was also a terror on the defensive end, converting a steal into a layup and yelling triumphantly after blocking a layup by Jasmine Hines.

The Spartans were 5 for 18 from the floor before Mills made a layup to end a 12-2 Maryland run and cut the gap to 22-13.

With four minutes left in the half, the Terrapins led by 15 and Thomas had 16 points compared to 15 for Michigan State.