- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Gary Blair walks out of the postgame interview room.
He has been at the podium alone. He has been sitting in front of a microphone explaining, in his charming way, how his basketball team -- the Texas A&M Aggies -- managed to lose not just one, but two double-digit leads in this NCAA regional semifinal.
Blair steps through the interview room door and onto the concrete hallway. His neat striped shirt is wrinkled and he's holding a paper cup with the NCAA's Powerade logo on it. When he looks up, he's face-to-face with three of the players who, minutes before, eliminated his team, the defending national champions.
He smiles. He walks toward them and places a hand on the shoulder of Maryland's Alyssa Thomas. He leans forward like he has a secret and says something into the space between Thomas and her teammates, guard Laurin Mincy and center Lynetta Kizer. The three are still wearing their uniforms, still wearing silly grins at what they've just accomplished: an 81-74 victory over third-seeded Texas A&M after trailing by 18 points in the first half, 12 in the second. Thomas, Mincy and Kizer just combined for 57 points and 27 rebounds. Their coach, Brenda Frese, stands to the side, her son's hand enveloped in her own. Frese watches Blair, lets the man with the Southern drawl speak to her kids.
Blair points at Thomas and then quickly at Mincy and Kizer. Then he smiles again, with finality, and walks away.
"You don't have to do it all yourself," Blair told Thomas. Then he pointed to Mincy and Kizer, "Trust your teammates." He means this as advice for Thomas, as she continues in this tournament. Blair is still coaching -- unsolicited as it might be -- even in the painful moments after a loss.
Blair's team is going home now; Thomas' is not. And exactly how that happened isn't your run-of-the-mill recap.
Maryland's makeshift locker room inside PNC Arena is plastered with printouts of their season-long motto: "Fight to the Finish." Beginning with the first drills of the preseason, Frese has exhorted her team to turn these words into actions. Every sprint is done until the end line is crossed, every blockout is executed until the rebound is in hand, every scrimmage is focused until the lessons are learned and every game is played until the buzzer sounds.
The No. 2 seed Terps trailed the Aggies 36-18 with 7 minutes, 10 seconds left in the first half. Maryland looked surprised, stunned -- and, somehow, calm. Frese presided over the bench as if the score was tied. Plenty of time left. Nothing to worry about. The Terps pounded the glass, finished a few buckets in transition and were down one basket at halftime. Maryland trailed again 60-48 with 13:54 remaining. Yes, there were more frequent, concerned glances at the scoreboard. But never panic. Not that.
"I thought we were going to be able to knock Maryland out of the game when we built those big leads," said Blair, whose team scored only one basket in the final 7:38. "We had a team on the ropes and couldn't put them away."
The Terps ended the game on a 21-4 run. With the exception of one jumper by freshman guard Brene Moseley, every basket was scored by the aforementioned trio. In these final minutes, Frese repeatedly put the ball in the hands of Thomas. The 6-foot-2 sophomore forward, the ACC Player of the Year, would hold the ball up top, let the shot clock drain. Then she'd drive left off a screen and pull up for a jumper at the elbow. Did she try to do too much, as Blair's advice suggests? Maybe. She finished with 21 points on 10-for-21 shooting, with 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and -- yes, here there's room for improvement -- 5 turnovers. "Yeah, he's right," Thomas admitted when walking back to the locker room. "I do that sometimes. I want to do it all. He's right."
Thomas appeared to be considering Blair's advice thoughtfully, like maybe she'll change a little something going into Tuesday's regional final against Notre Dame (ESPN/ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET), which defeated St. Bonaventure 79-35 in the day's other semifinal.
On Sunday, Thomas was sitting on the bench midway through the second half, sidelined for a few minutes because she'd collected her third foul. Thomas' knee bounced anxiously. She was itching for Frese to release her back onto the court, foul trouble be darned. And that's how all of the Terps -- even center Tianna Hawkins, who held an ice pack against the hip she injured late in the game -- appeared on the bench. They were having trouble staying seated, so prepped were they to fight to the finish. "We knew we had a lot of ground to cover, but there was no doubt in our mind that we could cover it," Moseley said.
In the end, the Terps covered so much ground, they shot right past the Aggies. The last minute wasn't even in doubt. Maryland hooted and hollered, and then jogged back to its locker room. On the jog, Moseley was in the middle of the pack of Terps. She was shaking her head and saying, "How, how, how," but there was no question mark in her statement. She seemed to already have the answer: Fight to the Finish.
"It was crazy," Moseley said. "We haven't been down like that for a while."
Outside of that interview room, Frese smiles as Blair leaves their orbit. She follows her team into the interview room and sits behind the mike Blair just used. She leans forward and speaks.
"This one was obviously extremely special and filled with a lot of Maryland magic," she said. "For our team, we have had so many games that we have been battle-tested like today, but obviously not on a stage like this in the NCAA tournament."
12dBonnie D. Ford