Thomas leads Terps past Spartans

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Alyssa Thomas did not singlehandedly beat Michigan State to reach the Sweet 16.

But anyone in the Comcast Center on Monday night had to at least wonder if she could have.

Behind 28 points from Thomas, who missed just six shots on the night, No. 4 Maryland took control early in a second-round game and rolled to a 74-49 win against No. 5 Michigan State. The reward is a rematch against No. 1 seed Connecticut, which beat Maryland nearly four months ago in Hartford.

With four minutes remaining in the first half, Thomas had outscored Michigan State 16-15. With a little more than eight minutes remaining in the game, she trailed the Big Ten team by just six points (her team, of course, was comfortably ahead by more than 20 points at the time).

"We thought it was really important to throw the knockout punch early and take their confidence," Thomas said.

Asked about her team's paucity of free throw attempts, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant couldn't bring herself to mount a jeremiad. The game was over in the first half, she said. Over when Thomas decided it was over.

In the junior's eight career NCAA tournament contests, she has averaged 19.1 points per game. Against Quinnipiac and Michigan State this year's tournament, she shot 59 percent and scored 57 points.

"The bigger the game, the bigger the stage and the moment, she just rises to the occasion," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I've said this before: [She's] the most competitive player I've ever coached. You see her will our team into her mindset, and you continue to see that time and time again."

Maryland has needed to rely on that will in an injury-plagued season. Initially, the Terrapins returned five key rotation players from last season's Elite Eight team, and added a top-25 recruit in Tierney Pfirman and a player with extensive postseason experience in Xavier transfer Katie Rutan. Then the starting backcourt went down with season-ending injuries, Brene Moseley before the regular season and Lauren Mincy after just five games. Sidelined by illness, Pfirman later joined Moseley, Mincy and Essence Townsend on the bench. More and more responsibility for keeping the season afloat fell on Thomas.

Whether or not she is the most talented player in the country, no player in the country is asked to do more for a team than Thomas -- not Brittney Griner, not Skylar Diggins, not Elena Delle Donne. Perhaps as much, but not more than Thomas.

She ranks in the top 50 nationally in points, rebounds and assists per game. She led or tied for the ACC lead in all three categories.

"Her energy, her drive and her competitiveness," Maryland junior Alicia DeVaughn said of Thomas' best assets. "Anyone that steps on the court that's trying to defend her, she has a mindset that they're not stopping her. Her energy, everyone feeds off of it -- off scores, off misses, anything. Her energy just motivates us all."

Monday night was all about her scoring. Every drive seemed to end with her at the basket and even her 3-point shots, one of the few remaining missing pieces for her, found their mark. But she still passed out of a double team to a wide-open Malina Howard in the closing seconds of the first half, losing an assist only when Howard's shot came half a beat after the buzzer. She still made the perfect post entry to Tianna Hawkins for an easy layup, still put the ball right in shooting position for Rutan on a 3-pointer. She still did everything.

There is an edge to that energy, a competitiveness that can appear to border on something more, like when she blocked a Jasmine Hines shot in Monday's game and let out a full-throated yell, eyes never leaving the Michigan State player. She has been accused of arrogance on occasion. So have a lot of great players who were driven to compete to a different degree than most people.

"We want to do things the right way, and we want to win the right way and lose with humility," Terps assistant coach David Adkins said. "But when you're chalenged at this level, and you have a special player, there's a fine line. I don't think she's arrogant. I think that she does want to prove things to people because not many people are talking about us here at Maryland right now."

And what Thomas did for Maryland this season doesn't end with her line in the box score. As many roles as she took on for the team, the Terrapins still needed five players on the court. That meant freshman guard Chloe Pavlech, who might otherwise have played spot duty behind Moseley, Mincy and Rutan, played 36 minutes against Michigan State and finished with eight points, six assists and just one turnover. It was the latest in a season's worth of quiet efficiency for a player who shoots 35 percent on 3-pointers and ranks among ACC leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio.

A season she suggests Thomas had more than a small hand in shaping.

"Honestly, more so than her on the court is off the court, she's probably the most helpful for me out of anyone on our team," Pavlech said. "She's really taken me under her wing and helped me so much on and off the court with balance, just like time management, schoolwork and basketball. She's given me a lot of confidence on the court."

The two started rooming together on the road, Thomas continually telling Pavlech that the team needed her. That isn't a side we often see, but it may have as much to do with why this team follows her as all of the statistics.

"Honestly, I can't get her to shut up," Pavlech said. "She talks a lot. She gets really excited about things. She has a great personality, laughs a lot, a great sense of humor. She's actually pretty funny."

All of it adds up to another chance at the game that got away.

The last game against Connecticut proved to be the longest in a season of few short workdays. Defended by Kelly Faris for much of the game, she hit just 2 of 12 shots from the field and committed eight turnovers.

All season long, she and Adkins, the player development guru who came to Maryland after working with the likes of Kevin Durant, watched video together. As she took on more ball handling duties, he might string together clips of Kobe Bryant running the pick-and-roll with clips of her in similar situations. The two of them watched the tape of the Connecticut game together, too. They left the volume on, the better to hear every word said about her as the bad moments mounted.

They watched the masterful job Faris did.

"She changed the game because she was really able to defend," Adkins said.

But they also saw Thomas trying to do too much, aware of all that was being asked of her and trying to do it all at once. She slowed down as the season progressed, making it that much harder for opponents to catch up.

Just ask Michigan State.

Maryland doesn't need Thomas to do it all herself.

It's still nice to know she might be able to.