Brown leads Terps back to Final Four

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The jumper that Lexie Brown hit just before halftime was like opening a release valve.

"The first thought I had was, 'Finally,'" Brown said. "It wasn't the prettiest of shots, but it went down."

And that was enough for the Maryland sophomore guard to find the energy and confidence that had been strangely absent only two days ago.

Brown scored 10 of Maryland's final 14 points in the game and 13 of her team-high 15 points in the second half as the top-seeded Terrapins punched their ticket to a second straight Final Four with their 28th straight victory, a hard-fought 58-48 win over Tennessee.

The Maryland guard trio of Brown, senior Laurin Mincy and sophomore Shatori Walker-Kimbrough were pinned down for most of the first half thanks to a suffocating Tennessee defense on the perimeter, but Brown's shot to end the first half seemed to lift the fog. After going 0-for-4 from beyond the arc in the first half, Maryland went 5-for-8 in the second.

Walker-Kimbrough ignited a 10-0 Maryland run that turned the game in the final eight minutes with a pair of baskets, and then handed the baton to Brown to finish the job. With Maryland down 44-41 with 8:42 to go, Brown hit a trey to tie the score at 44 about a minute later, then followed with another to give the Terrapins a 47-46 lead they would not relinquish.

"I just thought that I needed to bring more energy," Brown said. "Not even on the scoring end. I needed to bring my presence to the court in this game. They needed me to score in the second half, so I took it upon myself, put the team on my back."

Brown apologized to her teammates after Saturday's regional semifinal win over Duke. She'd scored one point from the free throw line, failed to score from the field, and felt like she didn't play with the intensity and drive the moment required.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese said she never said a word to Brown about the performance.

"We actually had no conversations," Frese said. "My pulse on Lexie is, I can tell [how she's reacting] once we circle back the next day. After that game, she was phenomenal on the bench, phenomenal in the locker room. We got to film the next day and in practice, and she was ready."

Frese thinks Brown didn't need anyone to lay out the situation for her. She understood her team needed more from her.

"I think sometimes you can place greater emphasis and make more out of it than what needs to be," Frese said. "She just had a tough shooting night."

Brown said she got "all the confidence in the world" from her teammates after Saturday's struggles. And when she started to score Monday, she saw the "basket grow."

Brown was happy to credit her teammates for not only their faith in her, but their ability to pick up the slack when she struggled. The three Maryland guards came into the game averaging more than 40 points a game between them. And they all hit big second-half shots for the Terrapins.

"Tori has done it for us. Bri's done it for us, Mincy's done it for us," Brown said of her teammates stepping up in different situations. "When your number is called, you have got to be ready. And they gave us so much confidence these past two days after how I played on Saturday."

Brown's emergence in the game was part of a larger pattern that ended up being the difference for Maryland between going to another Final Four or going home disappointed. Tennessee had held down the Maryland perimeter game in the first half -- the Terrapins went up 22-21 at halftime, but all of their points came either in the paint or from the free throw line. But the Maryland guards opened up the game late in the second half and put pressure on Tennessee as the Lady Vols struggled to counter.

"We would fall down and they would kick out to the open player and hit a 3," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I think they stepped up big and hit big baskets. That's what great guards do. I think we wore down a little bit because of it. We did a great job at the beginning, but I think toward the end of the game, we were giving too many open looks."

On the defensive end, Maryland held Tennessee to one field goal in the final 5:19.

"I told my teammate to look at the clock and it was under 10 [minutes]," Mincy said. "When you are that close to a Final Four, you've got to lock in. We answered that call."

Tennessee (30-6) cannot say the same. The Lady Vols failed to reach the Final Four for the seventh straight season, with four Elite Eight losses during this stretch.

For Ariel Massengale, Tennessee's leading scorer with 16 points, and Cierra Burdick and injured Isabelle Harrison -- who represent the last class of players who were recruited by Pat Summitt -- the devastation was unmistakable.

"Cierra, Izzy and I wanted to take this team back to the Final Four," Massengale said through tears. "We wanted to end this drought for this program, for ourselves, for Pat. We wanted it more than anything in the world.

"I think over your career, you think, 'Oh, I'll have next year.' Well, being a senior, understanding that this is the last time that we'll ever wear this uniform, it hurts."

Burdick, who had nine points on 4-of-13 shooting with six rebounds, said she didn't feel she played well enough for her team.

"If I could take it back, I would," Burdick said. "But I have just got to learn from it and move forward."

Warlick praised the leadership of Massengale and Burdick, particularly after the season-ending injury to Harrison last month.

"When Izzy went out, those two really took it upon themselves to step up and take this team in their own hands." Warlick said. "They had a lot of pressure on them. I'm not sure how much more they could do."