Maryland back in mix with nation's best

Sophomore Alyssa Thomas talks about Maryland's overtime victory against North Carolina and the greater experience of this year's team.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Two years ago, Maryland coach Brenda Frese knew that reinforcements were on the way, but that her Terrapins were going to take some lumps. Which they did, finishing 21-13 and losing in the WNIT's third round to Providence.

Not awful, but … well, come on. This is the program that won the 2006 NCAA title and has established high standards. Falling to the Friars? Even being in the WNIT? Not a year to remember.

Last season, the freshman class that Frese was sure would have a big impact arrived, and Maryland was definitely much more Maryland-like. The Terps went 24-8, yet didn't finish that strongly. They lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC tourney quarterfinals, then to Georgetown in the NCAA tournament second round. The 79-57 defeat at the hands of the Hoyas came on Maryland's home court, and it stung.

But all of that was part of the process, painful as it was at times, of getting Maryland back to where Frese wants the program to be: in the mix with the best teams in the country. And the No. 5 Terps (16-0) are there now.

Like most squads, Maryland still has plenty to work on. But what the Terps have to work with is quite impressive.

"I think first and foremost is their chemistry," Frese said Sunday after the Terps beat North Carolina 78-72 in overtime in Chapel Hill. "It's unbelievable the way they fight for each other. They are unselfish; they understand their roles. When I compare the successful teams I've gotten to coach -- at Minnesota and Maryland -- they're right up there with them.

"I say that in that it's easy for me to know what buttons to push, when to be positive and when to get into somebody. And they respond. That's what's fun -- they're so driven and competitive."

That showed with the Terps' last two contests: a come-from-behind 77-74 win against Georgia Tech in College Park, Md., followed less than 48 hours later by the aforementioned victory over the Tar Heels.

Did the Terps have their struggles in those games? Yes, but it's how they worked through the problems that gives them a good feeling about the way this team has developed. Especially the sophomores, led by Alyssa Thomas.

"Even just having one year under their belt has helped the sophomores have a big impact on our program," said Anjale Barrett, the fifth-year senior point guard. "They have so much more confidence, and that's given us a lift."

Thomas was last year's ACC rookie of the year. And if she's still sort of under the radar nationally as one of the country's top players, she shouldn't be for much longer. Thomas had 24 points against both the Yellow Jackets and the Tar Heels, and her baseline drive for a reverse layup at the buzzer forced overtime against UNC.

"Coach says big-time players make big-time plays," Thomas said when asked if she prefers having the ball in her hands at crunch time. "My teammates have faith in me to get that basket, so I was going to do whatever I could to get it."

Thomas, a 6-foot-2 forward out of Harrisburg, Pa., already has the physique of a pro player, so good luck to any opponents trying to outmuscle her. It won't happen.

But the improvements she has shown in her second season at Maryland highlight more than just her physicality and strength.

"I think her first nickname on campus was Baby LeBron," said Frese, adding that "The Smiling Assassin" is another of Thomas' monikers. "She's got that build in terms of what she's always been able to do. One of the areas we challenged her on was her outside shot. She's been bigger and stronger than people, so we wanted her to extend her range. And she's been able to do a lot more for us."

Thomas leads the Terps at 17.4 points per game, but she's getting a lot of support too. Two other sophomores are also starters: 6-foot guard Laurin Mincy (14.6 ppg) and 6-4 center Alicia DeVaughn (7.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg).

Tianna Hawkins (10.9 ppg, team-high 9.6 rpg), a 6-3 junior, has been joining the sophomores and Barrett in the starting lineup. Which gets to the chemistry part: It has worked to have the most experienced post player, senior Lynetta Kizer, come off the bench. She's averaging 11.9 points and 5.4 rebounds and has looked very comfortable stepping into the flow of the game whenever she enters.

One thing Maryland has tended to do quite well the last several years is rebound. Even though people might not necessarily think of the Terps as a great team on the boards, in fact, they really have been. Maryland has led the ACC in rebounding margin five of the last six seasons and is currently second in the nation, behind Cal, in that category. The Terps are outrebounding foes by an average of 18.2, and beat North Carolina on the boards by 10.

"That's something we've built our identity on: to be able to go to the glass," Frese said. "They've all done a terrific job for us there. I credit the depth that we have. And our three-post rotation is huge; they don't get tired."

Or at least not too tired to still battle. The Terps were clearly a little gassed Sunday afternoon against the Tar Heels, having made the trip to Chapel Hill after a late game Friday night against Georgia Tech. And if there's a team that will wear you out racing up and down the court, it's North Carolina.

Maryland was down by six points with 1 minute, 29 seconds left in regulation, and it looked as if the Terps would pick up their first loss. But Mincy hit a key 3-pointer, Barrett nailed a jumper and the Terps held the Tar Heels to just a free throw in the remaining time.

That set the stage for Thomas to beat three defenders as she powered her way to the tying basket. And yes, that made the "assassin" smile.

Maryland's defense stiffened in overtime, and the Terps left Carmichael Auditorium with their record still unscathed. They visit Miami on Thursday, then play four of their next five games at home.

The Terps aren't talking about being undefeated. Especially after two close calls, and knowing full well the perils of ACC play. But they are feeling good about where they are now and where they hope to be by March.

"Our last game last year, we were very disappointed after losing to Georgetown the way we did," Thomas said. "We worked on what we needed to fix with our weaknesses. We were very young; as freshmen we didn't know what to expect. Now we know what to look for out there."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.