Army was getting killed off the boards. It had already committed two shot-clock violations. All the while playing on the home court of its opponent. So what were the Black Knights doing with an 18-15 lead?
But faster than you can say Alyssa Thomas, Army’s womens’ basketball team had found some form of sinkhole at Comcast Arena. Maryland was off and running, and Army might as well have been standing still. And a promising start in the first half had, over the course of the last nine minutes of the half, turned into a disaster. In those final minutes, Maryland outscored Army 29-2. And the Black Knights never sniffed the lead again, losing 90-52 Sunday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Coming out of the timeout when we took the lead, I told our kids they better brace themselves because [the Terrapins] are going to be upset and they certainly were,” Army coach Dave Magarity said.
Yes, that’s one way of putting it. Another is that the No. 4 seed in the bracket realized it was playing the No. 13, and was doing so with Maryland’s soon-to-be all-time scorer, Thomas.
“That was a devastating run they went on,” Magarity said. “We knew what we were in for and we knew we were going to have our hands full. We knew we were going to have to play close to a perfect game. I’m very proud of what we’ve done. We knew it was going to be a very big challenge, and it was.”
Army’s leading scorer, Kelly Minato, seconded the motion.
“Coach told us that they were going to come out angry and really try to attack the basket more and they did,” she said. “We couldn’t keep them in front of us, it’s like we woke up a beast.”
And, seemingly, that beast smelled blood.
“I think we just had a lot of nerves in the beginning and weren’t really getting out in transition,” Thomas said. “Once we started getting stops and getting rebounds and just pushing the ball and picking up tempo, it opened up a lot for us.”
Obviously. Army’s leading scorer, Kelly Minato hit a 3-pointer, giving her team its biggest lead. Upon coming out of its subsequent timeout, Maryland scored seven straight points to take the lead. But the Terrapins were just getting started. Army had hit four 3-pointers on its way to the early lead, but now they even had trouble getting off makeable shots. Maryland continued to outrebound the Black Knights on both ends of the court and its defense was just as intense. With just under three minutes to go in the first half, Army had already committed 10 turnovers, leading to eight Maryland points.
Thomas, who passed mens’ player Juan Dixon as the all-time leading scorer in Maryland basketball history, had 13 points and 11 rebounds at the half. But Maryland coach Brenda Frese said it was Thomas’ presence during the timeout with 9:12 left in the first half that was perhaps her most significant contribution.
“I think it started with Alyssa,” Frese said. “She gave us a great calming presence in the timeout that we were fine and gave great confidence to the entire team. We changed our defense. I thought some of the switches that we made defensively really helped us and we were able to get going with our transition.”
Thomas didn’t score another point in the game, due in part to her sitting out most of the second half, but the damage was done. She had been the catalyst in Maryland having taken a 44-20 half-time lead. In that first half, Maryland outscored Army 14-0 in the paint, had 12 points off turnovers, and, on second-chance points, had an incredible 15-1 lead.
“In terms of her instinct and her ability, what an unbelievable nose for the ball,” Magarity said of Thomas. “She was just tremendous. I couldn’t believe it. She is so good in person, but I thought we did a pretty good job. We forced her into a couple tough shots and we doubled her whenever we could, but to her credit, she had four assists and she found people. She is so unselfish and she goes for a double-double. They really hurt us on the boards. I can’t remember the last time we’ve been outrebounded that bad. The way they shot the ball in the second half, if we keep giving them second and third chances, it’s so demoralizing.”
For the game, Maryland more than doubled Army’s rebounds, 47-22. Minato, who scored a game-high 27 points, was taken aback by the Terrapins’ size and the manner in which they exploited it.
“They’re really big and they’re really quick laterally so it was hard to get around them,” she said. “I just tried to attack but I wasn’t getting many clean looks. They were tough.”
Minato hit a 3-pointer 42 seconds into the second half, but Army got no closer. The Terrapins scored 18 of the next 25 points to take a 62-30 lead with 13:54 to go. Its biggest lead was 41, 83-42, with 5:36 left in the game.
“All the things we worked on in trying to form a game plan, they just blew them out of the water,” Magarity said. “They did not shoot the ball well in their last few games, but whatever they did in the last week getting ready, they just really shot the ball well. They were totally prepared for us. They did a great job defensively on us. We knew what we were in for and we knew we were going to have our hands full.”
“When you’re not trading baskets on both ends of the floor and on occasion when we tend to play like that,” Frese said. “When we can get stops that leads to our transition and you saw I thought with Lexie [Brown] and Alyssa and even Laurin [Mincy] when she came in that guard play really dominated the transition in terms of getting us running and being aggressive. Lexie found her shot, how easy it is to be able to pull up and be aggressive and they love playing that way. You look at how much fun they have playing and sharing the basketball. We want to continue to be able to do that.”
Maryland will play the winner of Monday’s first-round game between Tennessee and St. John’s. Army left the court a with a 25-8 record, breaking the team record for victories since becoming a Division I team. It was the Black Knights’ first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.
“It’s been a very memorable experience,” Army guard Jen Hazlett said. “It’s something that doesn’t come very often and for me has only happened once in my career. Thankfully I’m going out on kind of a high note.”