COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Michigan State’s Klarissa Bell didn’t score a single point. Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas finished with 28.
As much as anything, that explains what happened Monday night when the Spartans were eliminated from the NCAA tournament. Their top offensive player this season remained in a slump, while the Terrapins’ top threat dominated in a 74-49 victory that advanced Maryland to the round of 16.
“Alyssa Thomas won the game in the first half; the game was over,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “She took control, and she just starting hitting outside shots. And normally that’s not her thing, so you kind of knew you were going to be in for it.”
The Spartans can only be thankful that Thomas, a junior forward, will be gone by the time the Terrapins join the Spartans in the Big Ten Conference in 2014-15. She had 18 points by halftime and finished 12 for 18 from the floor. Her career high of 32 was within reach, but she was pulled with 4:08 left and the game well in hand.
“We couldn’t find a way to stop her,” said Spartans forward Becca Mills.
Mills and Annalise Pickrel scored 12 points for the fifth-seeded Spartans (25-9). Eliminated in the first round by Louisville at College Park a year ago, Michigan State was seeking to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2009.
But the Spartans made only 3 of 16 3-point attempts and took only two free throws. Bell, who had been averaging 10.8 points but had been struggling since the Big 10 tournament, went 0 for 2 from the field.
Naturally, it was Thomas, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, who had a lot do with Bell’s quiet game.
“I felt like she was intimidated tonight by Alyssa Thomas guarding her, for sure,” Merchant said. “She played faster, didn’t really process things, didn’t slow down at the rim. I just felt like she was very nervous with that speed and athleticism guarding her. I don’t know why, but for four games, her offense has gone away.”
Katie Rutan added 18 points for the fourth-seeded Terrapins (26-7), who face top-seeded Connecticut in the Bridgeport Regional semifinals. Maryland trailed only once — at 2-0 — and improved to 15-3 in NCAA tournament games on its home court.
Merchant’s teams have become regulars in the NCAAs, but she said she was sadder than usual about Monday’s blowout because this year’s team had persevered through more than the usual share of adversity. Three players were lost to serious injuries in the fall — Branndais Agee and Madison Williams with torn ACLs, and Aerial Powers with a torn Achilles — so the Spartans played most of the season with a rotation of seven.
Yet even when the Spartans cut the Terrapins’ lead to nine early in the second half, Merchant said she saw “blank stares” from her players instead of the leadership needed to complete the comeback.
“That’s not the competitive team that we’ve had,” Merchant said. “It just seemed like we were kind of whipped. We were just mentally tired, and we just were not that aggressive attacking team that we’ve been. We were better than what we showed tonight.”
Bell wasn’t the only player having a rough time. Jasmine Thomas and Kiana Johnson scored six points apiece, combining to go 6 for 19 from the field. Pickrel made only 2 for 8 from 3-point range.
And there was also the question as to why Pickrel’s pair of free throws with 4:08 to play accounted for the entirety of the Spartans’ allotment.
“Our goal this game was to get to the free throw line a lot, and we didn’t do that,” Pickrel said. “I think we did an OK job attacking, but I think we were looking for fouls — not so much finishing first. I can’t blame it on the refs. I guess we just didn’t do a very good job making it seem like we got fouled or something.”
Merchant said she’d have to look at the film to explain the lack of free throws, but she stressed that the Spartans lost because of something — or rather, someone — else.
“Alyssa Thomas really was impossible for us to get stopped at any point,” Merchant said. “And it obviously steamrolled from there.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)