LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Two players smiled as they walked off the basketball court Tuesday night. One had her head bowed toward the court, the grin a rueful lament. The other bounded joyfully toward the pep band to celebrate.
Those smiles said everything.
Playing on an opponent's home court in front of 14,002 fans, when the last digit felt like the number of people cheering for the visitors, fourth-seeded Maryland beat third-seeded Louisville 76-73. Trailing by 10 points with less than a minute to play, Louisville had a shot, literally, to send the game to overtime and again stun the tournament.
Alyssa Thomas is going to the Final Four. Shoni Schimmel is going to live on in memories for a long time.
Thomas is a three-time All-American who has already scored more points than any man or woman to wear a Maryland uniform and whose final rebound on this night tied her for the same honor on that count. Schimmel is the second-leading scorer in Louisville history and the second player to lead the women's team to the national championship game.
But Tuesday's regional final didn't just pair two of the best players in college basketball. It paired two players who are, if not without equal, then without comparison. And they were incomparable.
"It's a wonderful story," Maryland associate coach Tina Langley said. "It's two players that are playing phenomenal basketball at tournament time, which is what you want to see. You want the best for both of them because they work so hard, and it's great for women's basketball."
There is nobody quite like Thomas. Not that she is better than her peers -- though plenty of people with ties to College Park will suggest she is -- but she gets to the top of the mountain by a different route. She is a small forward who can play point guard. Or maybe it's the other way around. She is a rebounder and a distributor, a shooter and a driver.
And she needed Tuesday's win to avoid becoming another entry on the lengthy list of great players who never reached a Final Four. She played the single biggest role in doing so with 22 points, 13 rebounds and three steals.
"That was always the one thing people said she didn't have," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "It's only poetic justice when you talk about everything she has meant to this team and this program to have your senior year unfold this way."
Schimmel nearly took it from her in the most improbable manner, because that is what she does. That the improbable is always possible might, in fact, be the only certainty when it comes to the guard who made her way from a Native American reservation in Oregon to the biggest stage in women's basketball.
Thomas struck first, Louisville somehow managing to lose complete track of her before the game was 20 seconds old and leaving her all alone to hit a jumper in the corner that opened the scoring. The Terrapins followed the senior's lead and jumped on the Cardinals in a way that neither Iowa on its court in the second round nor No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 had come close to approximating.