Earlier this season, I wrote a story about a Maryland women's basketball game with four or five different leads because I couldn't settle on one way to describe the game in question. After Maryland's thrilling 76-73 win over the Louisville Cardinals - on Louisville's home court no less - to advance to the Final Four for the first time since the 2006 national championship run, I feel much the same. And my first dilemma is that as a fan, I simply want to savor the moment.
Those of you who have followed these long after the fact stories of mine know that I don't focus much on recapping play by play. Those of you who want that please read John's excellent recap. For my part, I'm going to try to look at the game with whatever degree of objectivity I can muster to point out the good, the bad, the obvious, and maybe some things you might have missed along the way. Those of you who'd like to take that ride with me, read on.
The obviously good
Two words: Alyssa Thomas. With 22 points and 13 rebounds, Thomas rang up her fourth consecutive double double in this NCAA Tournament. It is also her twenty-seventh of the season and sixty-sixth for her career. She added three steals and two assists. Through four games she's averaging 21 points on nearly 48 percent shooting, 12.75 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 steals. And that assist number could be much higher had her teammates converted on some very open and very easy looks. I will point out contributions from others, but it is Thomas who has simply willed her team to the Final Four. Oh, by the way, Thomas was named most outstanding player in the Louisville regional.
Two more words: Lexie Brown. Lexie had a few moments when she launched an ill-advised shot or tried to force an ill-advised pass into traffic. But overall, she stepped up and played with poise while showing an ability to let go of the past. On a night when her three point shot wasn't falling (she was 1 for 8) she managed to score 20 points by shooting 4 for 6 from inside the arc and making 9 of 10 free throws. She also dished out four of the Terps ten assists and pulled down six rebounds from the point guard position.
The next two words: Free throws. Twenty-five for twenty-eight. Enough said. Well, maybe not quite enough. The Terps were aggressive and for one of too few times this season made more free throws than the opponent attempted.
And we can't move on from the obviously good without mentioning Katie Rutan. The senior transfer from Xavier, who had been more or less missing in action in the Terrapins' wins over Texas and Tennessee (playing a combined fifteen minutes and failing to connect on the only three shots she took), shot Maryland into the game in the first half connecting on four of six from behind the arc. She also picked up a steal and drew an early charge on Shoni Schimmel.
The obviously bad
This one's simple: Fifteen first half turnovers with twelve coming on Louisville steals. Maryland players, Thomas and Brown included, dribbled far too much and too often into situations where quick Cardinals hands slapped at the ball and created havoc for the Terrapins' offense. This coupled with a number of lazy and telegraphed passes that also disrupted Maryland's offensive flow. I don't have access to a box score that shows points off turnovers but the number - especially that first half number - is probably not a pretty one for Terp fans.
Inbounds plays: more particularly baseline inbounds plays: The Terps often seemed flummoxed by the Cards' pressure when they were trying to get the ball inbounds from under the basket. And the type of inbounds play seemed irrelevant. By that I mean, Maryland had trouble getting it in under their own basket, under Louisville's basket and whether the inbounding player could move or had to be stationary. The coaches will need to focus on this before they take the court again Sunday.
Late half and late game situations: The Terps had four turnovers in the last 1:18 of the first half. The result was six Cardinals points sandwiched around a missed layup that turned a 32-30 Maryland lead into a 32-36 halftime deficit. They essentially repeated that in the second half with four turnovers in the final 1:32 of regulation. This turned a relatively comfortable eight point lead into a nail biting finish where Louisville had a chance to tie the game with a last second three point shot. Loath as I am to mention it and though I have good things to say about her later, Laurin Mincy made a very poor decision when she drove for a contested layup with 1:50 to play and the Terps up by ten. Play cocky and confident but play smart. At that point the clock is the opponent, not Louisville. Use the clock. Force the foul. Make the free throws.
Utilizing the advantage: In the first half, I made a note that said, "Terps not getting the ball inside enough, need to better use advantage." The very next note is: "First inside shot leads to an offensive rebound and putback by AT."
But, Maryland's going to the Final Four. Tuesday night they became the first team since 1996 to win a regional final on the opponent's home floor. So this story has to end on a positive note. So, herewith...
The less obvious
Contributing without scoring: Maryland got only six points apiece from Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Alicia DeVaughn. Shatori shot 1 for 6 but made all four of her free throws. She pulled down six rebounds and made two steals. There were also a number of times when she found the open spot in Louisville's press. As for DeVaughn, the senior made three of her four shots including four in Maryland's decisive 18 to 4 run in the second half. To that she added two steals, two blocks and an assist. Laurin Mincy was another Terp who didn't shoot well. She was 1 for 8 from the floor. Like Shatori, Mincy made all her free throws - going 6 for 6 - and had a team leading 4 steals.
Maryland's defense: Sometimes, you simply can't look at the final numbers. When Shoni Schimmel made a jump shot with 15:08 to play in the second half, Louisville had 45 points. The Cardinals reached 47 points with 7:36 to play. That's over seven and a half minutes without a point. Before that Antonia Slaughter basket, Maryland went from a three point deficit to a nine point lead. Before she made three of four ridiculously tough three point jumpers in the game's final 31 seconds, the Terps held Schimmel to 36 percent shooting and 25 percent from behind the arc - both below her season average. (But all credit to her for making huge shots when they counted.)
Maryland's coaches: The Terps trailed at the half. They had 15 turnovers and could not have gone into the locker room feeling especially good having seen a two point lead with possession and 1:30 to play become a four point deficit. Despite the fact that the Cardinals opened their lead to seven the Terrapins came out much more poised in the second half with their first three baskets coming in the paint where they should have had an advantage. They dribbled less and protected the ball better. In the first fourteen minutes of the half, Maryland had four turnovers. Louisville had ten. Whether it was strategy, motivation, or a combination of the two, the coaches put it all together in that halftime locker room.
Before I close, let me share a brief personal anecdote. About eight weeks ago, I received a piece of mail that prompted me to tell many people to book their rooms in Nashville. I've been following the Terps around to home and away games for more than a decade. I was in Boston for the 2006 "Natty." I traveled to six road games this season alone.
Then I got the letter from the Federal District Court of Maryland informing me that I'd been selected to be on call for jury duty for one month or one trial beginning April 1, 2014. Though I may not be called (and wasn't this week), I need to phone in every Monday night and be available to report on Tuesday morning. After she stopped laughing, the clerk told me that not being able to travel to cover my first Final Four as a member of the media didn't constitute a substantial hardship. Thus, I was precluded from traveling to Nashville and Maryland seemed destined to do so.
Of course, had I known on Friday that I wouldn't have to report today, I could have gone to Louisville. So I expect a repeat next week. A Maryland win on Sunday. A call to the court Monday night deferring my summons at least another week, and the frustration of knowing that I could have been there.