- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If it's all the same to the rest of us, Alyssa Thomas would like to request that the discussion about the best player never to reach a Final Four continue without her. She is going to play on the season's final weekend.
Thomas totaled 22 points and 13 rebounds and got help from senior Katie Rutan's 3-point shooting and freshman Lexie Brown's composure as No. 4 seed Maryland overcame a four-point halftime deficit to beat No. 3 seed Louisville 76-73.
Key stat: Turnovers. Maryland survived a lot of its turnovers in the first half. Louisville couldn't overcome a bunch of its own making in the second half. The teams finished almost level in turnovers -- 25 for Maryland and 21 for Louisville -- but that marked just the third time since a loss against Kentucky on Dec. 1 that Louisville turned it over as many as 20 times. It was indicative of a night, specifically a second half, when things were just a little bit off until it was too late.
Turning point: Within a minute of the start of the second half, Louisville had pushed a 36-32 edge at the break to a 41-34 lead and warmed up the very large and very partisan crowd in the KFC Yum! Center with a couple of big plays -- a potential three-point play from Shoni Schimmel (she missed the free throw) and a conventional 3-pointer from Antonita Slaughter. It felt like the moment when the Cardinals might take control of the game. It wasn't.
The Terrapins got a quick basket inside from Alicia DeVaughn, then a tip steal and layup from Thomas and let Louisville sow the seeds of its own demise with some bad decisions and careless turnovers.
It wasn't a run with a signature moment -- the entire game was ragged -- but by the time Louisville coach Jeff Walz called a timeout with 11:15 to play, the Terrapins had put together an 18-4 stretch that put them up by seven points.
Not without a fight: While Louisville didn't get the deficit to a single possession until 14 seconds remained, Schimmel never stopped shooting. A 3-pointer with a little more than a minute to play could have trimmed the lead to three points. One she did hit, fading away in the corner, cut the margin to five points with 29 seconds left. So did a pull-up from NBA range with 17 seconds left, a shot that was followed by Louisville regaining possession of the ball and going to the free throw line. And the rainmaker she launched from a few steps inside half court with 4 seconds left cut the margin to two points.
With 3.5 seconds on the clock, Louisville finally had its chance to pull level. Running the same hook-and-ladder play the Valparaiso men memorably used years ago to set up a Bryce Drew winner against Ole Miss in the NCAA tournament, Schimmel got a good look from just in front of her team's bench. It didn't go.
Schimmel's 31 points on 12-of-29 shooting with five rebounds and four assists was the senior at her boldest and brashest. Some of the moves and some of the shots were those only she would take, but that's one of the reasons she has been such a special player the past four seasons. As the ball bounded away after her last miss, she had a smile on her face.
It's a good way to remember her.
Key player: Katie Rutan. Maryland had only two players with more than 23 3-pointers entering Tuesday's game, so there isn't much subterfuge as to where the shots are going to come from. Still, Louisville too often lost contact with Rutan and allowed the senior, who attempts more than 75 percent of her shots from behind the arc, to get clean looks from long distance. They should know better. When Louisville upset Xavier in the second round of the 2011 NCAA tournament, it did so despite five 3-pointers from Rutan, who later transferred to Maryland. So in two career NCAA tournament games against the Cardinals, she has nine 3-pointers. In 11 other tournament games, she has 18 of them.
She did all of her damage in the first half, but that was enough to keep the Terrapins within range of a run.
How it was won: An ugly win is still a beautiful feeling when it means a trip to the Final Four, so Maryland isn't likely to care about the artistic merits of Monday's win. And physical and gritty is a style that tends to work for Maryland. Aside from Schimmel, who was brilliant early, and some good looks from Antonita Slaughter, Maryland's defense seemed to speed up Louisville and dull the execution that it so often displayed in games like this in the past. There wasn't a lot that separated the teams in this game, not field goal shooting, rebounding or points in the paint. But until Schimmel's late flurry of 3-pointers made things uncomfortable, the Terrapins seemed more comfortable with a game that made up in energy what it lacked in precision.
Not so sweet home: With venues a hot topic this postseason, Maryland becomes the first team to win a regional final on an opponent's home court since 1996, when Tennessee beat Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
What's next: Maryland advances to face No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the Final Four in Nashville. The Terrapins came as close as any team to ending the Fighting Irish's bid at perfection when the teams played in College Park on Jan. 27. A slow start put them in a big hole, but Thomas took over in the second half and Notre Dame was fortunate, if not necessarily lucky, to escape with a four-point win. Maryland also played a pair of No. 1 seeds from the ACC in its most recent Final Four appearance in 2006, beating ACC rivals North Carolina and Duke en route to its first national championship. The Terrapins made trips to the Final Four in 1982 and 1989.