COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Arguably the loudest ovation of the day inside the Xfinity Center on Saturday was not the one that greeted the man who works in the Oval Office. That had nothing to do with politics or partisanship on a day that saw President Barack Obama take in his niece's game. Abraham Lincoln could have walked in during the opening game between Princeton and Green Bay, when the stands were still more empty than full save for concentrated patches of orange and green, and the reception would have paled in comparison to that a few hours later when Alyssa Thomas appeared on the video board during the game between Maryland and New Mexico State.
A year removed from her final college game, the best player in Maryland women's basketball history is a hard act to follow.
So, too, is Niveen Rasheed, still perhaps the best player in Princeton history two years after she last played college ball.
Yet here we are, waiting for Monday evening (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET) and a game between top-seeded Maryland and unbeaten No. 8 seed Princeton that is one of the most anticipated second-round games in recent NCAA tournament memory.
How do you replace the irreplaceable?
In each case Monday, the answer was already there, if not yet obvious, before the question needed to be asked.
In Maryland's sophomore trio of Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (who as freshmen helped Thomas reach the Final Four) and Princeton's starting quartet of juniors Amanda Berntsen Michelle Miller, Annie Tarakchian and Alex Wheatley (who as freshmen won an Ivy League title and appeared in the NCAA tournament in Rasheed's final season) these two teams planted the seeds of perfection. That's season-long perfection in Princeton's case and a perfect run through their first regular season and conference tournament in the Big Ten for the Terrapins.
Shortly before the NCAA tournament began a season ago, Maryland coach Brenda Frese called her three then-freshmen into the office for a conversation. It wasn't a lecture or an ultimatum, just a lesson, part of the teaching by a coach who gets as much out of young players, from the 2006 national championship with a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores through to the present, as anyone. She told them to look at the load Thomas carried and what they could do, not only in the weeks ahead alongside the All-American, but the years ahead once Thomas left.
She wanted them already preparing to answer the question everyone had about Maryland entering this season.
"I mean, we ourselves were asking, 'What are we going to do without Alyssa?'" Brown admitted. "But we all had a talk amongst ourselves during the summertime that we all had to step up big. I was expecting us to be a great team still because we still had a lot of pieces from last year, but the success we've had this year started out as a bit of a surprise.
"But after conference play started, I was like, 'Oh, we're a pretty good team.' For us to have the balanced scoring that we have and how [we] share the ball, and our chemistry is out of this world, it has been a lot of fun."
Maryland initially struggled to capitalize on its national championship nearly a decade ago. The only time it missed the NCAA tournament under Frese since then was when the last of that core moved on. The succession plan wasn't smooth enough. It wasn't a mistake the Terrapins were going to repeat with Thomas.
"That's part of our job, is looking forward each year several years in advance trying to plan how all of the pieces will fit together," said associate coach Tina Langley, who arrived in 2008 and is a key figure in the recruiting process. "Obviously, each year you lose certain pieces, so you try to plan how the next group will come in and work together. When Kristi Toliver left, you don't replace Kristi Toliver. You don't replace Marissa Coleman. You have new pieces, and you've got to figure out how those pieces complement each other."
Maryland seems to always be the other team in any sentence this postseason. It's the other No. 1 seed, the one that doesn't have an All-American or conference player of the year such as Connecticut's Breanna Stewart, Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd or South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell. It's even the other team at its own site. It was Princeton that the president came to see Saturday and Princeton's unbeaten record and low seed that dominates the conversation. The Terrapins don't have a singular star or narrative. They just have a really talented, balanced team -- the four leading scorers, including all three sophomores, average between 12.1 and 13.7 points per game -- that gets along well and hasn't lost a basketball game since the week after Thanksgiving. They're content to keep winning until we have to talk about them. They have elder stateswomen, redshirt senior Laurin Mincy, enjoying a healthy and productive final season. They have promising freshman, Kristen Confroy, a favorite of late. But at the core are those sophomores.
A year ago, they went to Louisville and won a regional final against the Cardinals on their home court. Jones and Walker-Kimbrough had difficult games that night. Brown scored 20 points. But all celebrated -- and all learned.
None of them could replace Thomas individually. Collectively was a different story.
"You knew [Brown] had the ability to have a lot of big moments and was going to be a great basketball mind and be able to be a court general for us," Langley said of the point guard. "Bri Jones, you knew she could be a great force inside. She had to make a commitment to her nutrition level, her fitness. She did those things, and we knew she would. You just see those pieces starting to form. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is a great athlete, and really very young in the sport because she played so many sports, so you knew she was going to have a big jump within her game when she was able to focus on one sport."
A lot of things are going to need to go right for Princeton to compete Monday night. It is a team much better than its seed, but it would be difficult to find any rational person to make the case that it should have been a No. 1 seed. Princeton needs to take care of the basketball, turnovers nearly the Tigers' undoing in the first round against Green Bay and an area of modest concern all season (the Tigers rank 70th in the nation in fewest turnovers committed per game, not bad but still worse than 26 tournament teams). Princeton needs to hit 3-pointers with the same efficiency it did all season and in the first round. It needs to rebound like it did all season, including the masterpiece of board work against the Phoenix. All of that is what needs to happen. Who will be doing the bulk of it is the junior class.
Senior Blake Dietrick, the Ivy League player of the year, is Princeton's leader and star. And if she isn't the best player in program history, it is only because Rasheed, an honorable mention All-American, really was that good before her. The four juniors who now start alongside Dietrick spent their first seasons with -- and mostly watching -- Rasheed. Only Miller and Wheatley played significant minutes, and even then fewer than 20 minutes per game.
"She did not feel entitled for anything," Miller said of Rasheed. "She worked for everything she got. In practices that you could say maybe didn't matter, like before a game against Columbia or something, she'd still be the one diving on the floor for the balls and everything like that. She showed that you really earn what you get here and you have to put in the work. Her energy as a player was really incredible."
Princeton coach Courtney Banghart had her own meeting to lay out her plan for the future. In her case, it came before the class of players who are now juniors even committed. She wanted them to know that she wasn't content to simply be on the map, a status Rasheed and those around her earned for a program previously in basketball oblivion. Living up to those who came before wasn't enough; the new class owed it to them to build on that foundation.
Whether that meant Miller, one of the all-time leading scorers in the history of California high school basketball, doing more than shooting, or Tarakchian, who her coach describes as "gentle and kind" being less of each on the court.
"When I brought in that junior class, I pulled them into my office -- I brought them all in together, all five of them," Banghart said. "And I said, 'We're recruiting you here to go to the Sweet 16, so you're either in or you're out. I'm in, so you're either in or you're out.' And this was before they had made their commitment, so that they knew you were committing to something by coming. And to do that, once they had committed to that, I was able to hold that to them. That for us to get to the Sweet 16, 'Michelle, you're going to have to defend and rebound. Annie, you're going to have to get tougher.' So this has been a plan for a long time coming."
Rasheed tweeted after the first-round win that she planned on finding a way to get to College Park for Monday's game. Judging by Saturday, Thomas might be there, too.
What they will see are teams doing just fine without them, which is a feat as impressive than perfection.