Terps' Thomas out to make noise


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Maryland locker room was filled with cameras and reporters, all of them there for Alyssa Thomas.

And she could not have cared less.

Thomas gives the kind of answers that make reporters run away: usually five, six words maximum. Except this is the Final Four, so they were not running away. Not yet. They were gathered around the 6-foot-2 senior forward, who was standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed behind her back, patiently fielding questions, secretly waiting until she could go back and sit with her teammates to get ready for her first-ever practice at her first-ever Final Four.

She was focused on Sunday night, on leading the No. 4 seed Terrapins against No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the national semifinals (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, WatchESPN). But talking about Sunday night? That didn't seem so important right then and there.

Standing across the room from Thomas on Saturday was junior guard Katie Rutan, who shoots 3-pointers as if they are layups, connecting on 43.4 percent of her attempts from beyond the arc this season. Rutan is also very good at talking, so she offered some insight into her more reclusive teammate. "Alyssa doesn't like cameras or anything like that at all," Rutan said. "She's shy when you first meet her, but once you develop a relationship, she doesn't stop talking. No matter how many times she has been interviewed, she isn't used to it. That's not her thing. Her thing is playing."

Thomas doesn't exactly fly under the radar. She is Maryland's all-time leading scorer, with 2,342 career points and counting. But the powerful lefty is so low-key off the court that she is often overshadowed by her peers with bigger personalities, players such as Stanford forward Chiney Ogwumike, whose Cardinal squad takes on undefeated Connecticut in the second semifinal, and Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims, who won a national championship with the Lady Bears in 2012.

Like Ogwumike and Sims, Thomas earned first-team All-America honors, averaging 19.1 points and 11 rebounds per game this season. But not a lot of folks expected Thomas to be in Nashville. She essentially willed the Terrapins to this point, playing like someone who refused to finish her college career without adding this bullet point to her résumé. She scored 33 points in Maryland's upset win over No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and then 22 points against No. 2 seed Louisville, in a game played on the Cardinals' home floor and attended by 14,002 fans, almost none of whom were rooting for Thomas & Co.

So, yeah, the Terps are the underdogs against undefeated Notre Dame.

Or, as Thomas so succinctly put it: "We're here to crash the party."

A few weeks ago, Maryland didn't look like a team heading to the Final Four. The Terps lost to North Carolina in the first round of the ACC tournament, then faced a 16-day layoff before the start of the NCAA tourney. But head coach Brenda Frese, who guided Maryland to the 2006 national title, used the time wisely, filling those seemingly endless hours with nothing but competitive drills, red versus black, again and again, finishing each session with a free throw ladder in which missed shots meant running.

In the process, her players realized something important about themselves. "I think it took the full two weeks for us to really understand what was happening," Rutan said. "We would go so hard against each other, and, at the end of the two weeks, we realized, 'We're fighting against people who have 'Maryland' written on their chest. Why can't we come together like this, all 14 of us, and do that against someone else?'"

So, at the end of their final practice before the tournament, as the Terps huddled together, Thomas and senior center Alicia DeVaughn started a discussion about how to channel that competitive energy toward Maryland's opponents. "You could sense what was happening over those two weeks," Rutan said. "But we finally talked about it, acknowledged it, and everyone was like, 'Now we just need to go at another team even harder.'"

Of course, that's exactly what they have done. The Terrapins are like a wind-up toy going full tilt. And they don't see why they should stop just because they're running into Notre Dame. "Our motto is, 'Crash the party,' because nobody expects us to be here," Rutan said, echoing her teammate. "It's as if we should just be happy to be here, but we're here to do business, just like anybody else. We had our happy time the last two days, but happy time is over. It's time to get a win."

On that subject, Thomas sounded downright verbose. "Yup, we're here to crash the party," she repeated. "And I know Stanford is, too. I talked to Chiney, and we're both here to crash the party."

What about Notre Dame now playing the underdog card after losing senior leader Natalie Achonwa to injury?

Thomas wasn't really buying it. She simply shrugged and said, "You gotta do what you gotta do."

It's all just talk at this point anyway.

And we know how she feels about that.