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A Final Four after all

In a fitting end to her illustrious career, Alyssa Thomas helped carry her team to their first Final Four appearance since the 2006 National Championship.

Phil Fabrizi

From my point of view the season went something like this: High expectation. Tempered ambition. Reserved resignation. Surprised satisfaction. The season in question is that of the Maryland women's basketball team. The Terps finished 28-7 and reached the Final Four for the first time since 2006.

The High Expectation Phase

In 2012-2013 the women's basketball team finished 14-4 and tied for second place in the ACC. They ended the season with a record of 26-8 and a Sweet Sixteen loss to eventual national champion Connecticut. They managed this with a roster that had one graduating senior and was so depleted by injuries that they had to recruit a player from the volleyball team who hadn't played competitive basketball for six years simply to have enough players on the roster to avoid the possibility of finishing a game with only four players on the court.

The 2013-2014 roster returned the 2013 ACC Player of the Year, Alyssa Thomas, all the injured players, and added a heralded four player freshman class. Looking at the talent and depth on the roster, opening the season with high expectations seemed reasonable and natural. When people asked about mine, and they did, my reply was that any finish short of the Final Four would be a disappointment to me and, I would have hoped, to the team and coaches as well.

Maryland opened the season on the road against the University of South Florida Bulls and came away with a hard fought 78-70 road win that proved to be of less quality than anticipated. They returned home and cruised to a comfortable win over Loyola before hosting the UConn Huskies. Although the Terps suffered their first loss of the season to a somewhat depleted Connecticut team the 72-55 final was not the point at which my ambitions for the squad began to temper. After Maryland's first two possessions of the second half, the score was tied (Not so obvious at the time was that this would be the only time a would tie UConn in the second half.). Though the Huskies eventually won going away and the Terrapins lost an opportunity for a signature win, I found the loss disappointing but not disheartening. (By the end of the season, only Baylor lost to UConn by fewer than seventeen.)

The Tempered Ambition Phase

The Terps followed that loss with a fourteen game win streak. Most of the games in this string were lopsided victories against generally inferior opposition. However, however, two games stood out that eroded my optimistic projections. Maryland hosted both of these games - one in late November against Drexel and the other in early December when they faced Ohio State in the ACC-B1G challenge.

Maryland managed to hold on for a 69-63 win over Drexel but, after opening the contest by racing out to an early ten point lead and building it to sixteen with 1:47 to play in the first half, they allowed the Dragons to build a bit of momentum when the visitors closed the half on a 5-0 run. Although Drexel never led, Maryland never really put them away and Drexel closed to within three with under three minutes to play. The game showed a worrying lack of "killer instinct," an over reliance on Alyssa Thomas, and perhaps a level of immaturity that quality squads - which Drexel certainly was not - could potentially expose and exploit.

The pattern repeated in the contest with Ohio State. Somewhat deceptively, the Terps never trailed after methodically opening a comfortable early lead of as much as twelve in the first half. As happened against Drexel the Buckeyes made a late first half run and closed to within three at halftime. The Terps opened the second half on an 11-2 run and looked on their way to meeting the reasonable expectation of a fairly one sided win. But once again, Maryland failed to maintain the pressure and Ohio State hung around long enough to close to within three with under three minutes to play just as Drexel had. Again the Terps responded and held on for the win but the pattern was troubling and certainly sowed some seeds of doubt.

Following the win over Ohio State, Maryland romped to four blowout wins facing thoroughly over matched competition. They certainly appeared to be hitting on all cylinders offensively averaging nearly 104 points per game in the four wins but again, the quality of the opponents was insufficient to provide any real reading on the team's direction. Their first ACC game, a 79-70 road win against a young but very talented North Carolina squad, however, indicated some growth.

The Reserved Resignation Phase

Maryland returned home to take three straight league wins over Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech. However, when they permitted the Orange to cut a twenty point lead to ten in the second half and needed 43 free throw attempts to secure the win over Georgia Tech, neither did they buttress my early season certainty that they were of Final Four caliber nor undermine my later outlook of tempered ambition.

My sense of resignation set in over the three game stretch that followed beginning with a somewhat inexplicable loss at Virginia. The Terps came out flat and never opened any distance between themselves and the Cavaliers. Although they led by four at halftime, the home team bore a confident look going into the the locker room that's never encouraging for the visitors to see. When Virginia opened the second half by punching the Terps with an 11-0 run Maryland showed no ability to recover - never getting the important defensive stops conceding 52 second half points - and eventually losing by fourteen.

Four days later, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish brought their 18-0 record to the Comcast Center. For much of the first half, it looked as though the Irish played basketball at a different level than the Terrapins. Whether this was a result of actual superiority or a case of Maryland still suffering a bit of a hangover from the loss at Virginia, seemed irrelevant as the visitors led by 22 with four minutes to play in the initial stanza. Unlike the game at Virginia, the Terps turned up some defensive pressure and, led by Laurin Mincy and Alyssa Thomas, closed the half on a 16-6 run to trail 47-35 at intermission.

Maryland needed less than four minutes to cut the Notre Dame lead to five and unlike the game against UConn, they didn't immediately allow an Irish run in response. This came after the Terps took their first and only lead of the night edging ahead 64-63 with 9:59 to play. Notre Dame then made the decisive 10-3 run and though Maryland would close within one, they again failed to get the critical defensive stop and never recaptured the lead eventually dropping an 87-83 decision.

The mid-season woes continued on Maryland's trip to NC State. The Terps struggled a bit to open the game but opened a ten point lead midway through the first half. They surrendered it and more allowing the Wolfpack to hold a one basket lead with under three minutes to play in the half. However, when they closed the half on a 7-2 run Maryland looked like the squad with momentum.

In this case, looks were a bit deceiving. The Terps opened their largest lead of the half, 53-44, with twelve and a half minutes to play. Following an NC State timeout, the home team scored thirteen straight and Maryland never recovered dropping their third consecutive game to a league opponent.

The Terps rallied to win eight of their next ten in a stretch that included important road wins at Syracuse and Georgia Tech. The two losses, however, instilled little confidence that they were a team of Final Four quality. The first was a 21 point loss at Duke against a depleted Blue Devils team that had lost both their point guards and the second came in Maryland's ACC Tournament opener against a rising North Carolina team with the Tar Heels surviving a furious Terrapins second half rally to hold on for a 73-70 win.

The Surprised Satisfaction Phase

The Terps came home from the short stay in Greensboro to await word of their NCAA fate. Heritage Hall at the Comcast Center erupted in cheers the night of St. Patrick's Day when the NCAA Selection Show on ESPN announced Maryland as the fourth seed in the Louisville region. This put the Terps on the opposite side of the draw from Connecticut and put the likely teams in their way to earn a trip to Nashville as Army, Texas, Tennessee, and either LSU or Louisville.

As the hosts for the first two rounds and the highest seed in College Park there was little doubt that Maryland would move on to the Sweet Sixteen and a likely showdown with Tennessee. The Terps met that expectation as they cruised to a 38 point win over Army and struggled a bit to get past a tall Texas team before coming away with the 69-64 win.

So, it was on to Louisville and the top seed in the region, the Tennessee Lady Vols. The Terrapins, playing perhaps their best game since the loss to Duke, thoroughly dominated the Vols from the outset. Tennessee held their one and only lead at 3-2. After that, it was all Maryland and all Alyssa Thomas. The senior, who had already had several spectacular games throughout a season that included four triple doubles, seemed determine to carry her team to the first Final Four of her illustrious career. She scored a career high 33 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in Maryland's 73-62 upset of the region's top seed.

The road to Nashville got no easier two nights later when the Terps had to take on the third seeded Louisville Cardinals on Louisville's home court where they had amassed a 17-1 record for the season with their only loss coming at the hands of the nation's best team, the UConn Huskies. At the end of a tightly contested first half that featured four ties and ten lead changes, and in which neither team led by more than six, Maryland found themselves on the short end of a 36-32 score. The Cardinals had scored the final six points of the half and, with their boisterous crowd behind them, seemed to be the team with momentum leaving the court.

Returning to the court, that momentum carried over as the home team opened a seven point lead early in the second half - their largest of the game. Perhaps toughened by some of those early struggles, the Terps came back to score six straight of their own before finally recapturing the lead they wouldn't surrender with 13:47 to play on an Alyssa Thomas score. Maryland eventually opened up a double digit margin before surviving a furious late run by Louisville that was fueled by Terrapins' turnovers and great shooting by Shoni Schimmel - the Cardinals' All-American guard.

Though the season came to a crashing end in an uncharacteristically flat performance in their national semi-final game against Notre Dame, no Maryland fan could be unhappy with a team that began the season with high expectations, overcame their mid-season doldrums, and finished two games shy of a national championship.