The last time Alyssa Thomas faced Connecticut, the Terrapins women’s basketball forward sat dejected on the bench next to then-teammate Tianna Hawkins, who had just tearfully exited her final college game.
It was March 30, and the Huskies were in the process of dispatching the Terps from the NCAA Sweet 16 in dominant fashion. Thomas, an All-American last season and national player of the year candidate this fall, struggled for the second time in as many losses to UConn in the Terps’ 2012-13 campaign.
Afterward, Thomas sat next to guard Chloe Pavlech, Hawkins and coach Brenda Frese in the dark underbelly of Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., and turned toward this season.
“I’ll take a little break,” Thomas said. “But I’m ready to get back in the gym already and work on something new.”
That “something new” has already taken form this season in the shape of a dynamic Terps team, one returning eight players with starting experience while adding four highly touted freshmen to the mix.
And while the Terps have already been challenged this year in a 78-70 win over South Florida in Friday’s season opener, they face their first true test with national implications tonight when No. 1 UConn visits Comcast Center for its third contest in 11 months with the No. 8 Terps.
For a Terps team that had Final Four aspirations derailed one year ago by a slew of untimely injuries, this is its first — and perhaps most significant — chance to make a statement on the national stage. Top 15-ranked conference foes Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina all remain on the Terps’ schedule, but the Huskies are the highest standard.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s program has been synonymous with greatness in the past decade, winning seven championships since 2000 and three of the past five. After beating the Terps, 76-50, in the Sweet 16, the Huskies rolled through Kentucky, Notre Dame and Louisville en route to the national title.
“They are the best team in the country right now,” Thomas said. “So this is where we can see where we rank against them.”
And for the first time in three matchups against UConn, the Terps will be at full strength. When the teams met in December at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., the Terps had just lost guard Laurin Mincy for the year to a torn ACL. Forward Tierney Pfirman, then a freshman, made her first career start on national television, and guard Chloe Pavlech played 38 minutes in her first career start.
The Terps have come a long way since then.
While the returns of Mincy and guard Brene Moseley, who tore her ACL in the preseason last October, add more veteran experience, the Terps’ newcomers could provide the difference against the talented Huskies.
Guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough scored 12 points in the season-opening win at South Florida, while fellow guard Lexie Brown had 11 points, six rebounds and six assists. ESPN ranked the class as one of the best in the nation, and the early returns have lived up to that billing.
Now they just have to do it on national television against the most decorated program in the sport’s history.
“I think a big thing I took from all of them is they’re gamers, when you look at what happened to us at South Florida, and we hadn’t prepared them any differently for their first games,” Frese said. “I wouldn’t overemphasize this game any bigger than any other game. We’ll have the same approach that we had the first game of the season.”
Tonight’s game marks a chance for the Terps to assert themselves as a serious contender in the national title race. Last season, they hung around the periphery of the game’s elite teams, losing twice each to UConn, Duke and North Carolina.
This season, they return reloaded and ready for another run. Seven seasons have passed since the Terps captured the 2006 national championship in Boston, and the farthest the Terps have advanced since is the Elite Eight.
A win tonight, and the Terps could be back on the path to the Final Four. And the game’s final weekend in Nashville, Tenn., would be a far cry from the cramped quarters in Bridgeport seven-and-a-half months ago.
“We knew we were going to play them early next year,” Thomas said. “We all were here all summer just working hard and waiting for them to come to our environment.”