COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Brenda Frese had a choice: Fly to Argentina to watch several of the nation’s best high school basketball players, or take a 30-minute drive to check out a relatively unknown teenager named Alyssa Thomas.
About 15 seconds after arriving at the Battle of Baltimore in 2008, Maryland’s head coach knew she made the right call.
“It’s typically known as a mid-major event, but that was the only one we were going to get to see Alyssa at,” Frese recalled. “The best decision I ever made was not following USA basketball overseas to go see someone in our backyard.”
After breaking her wrist and ankle as a sophomore, Thomas was preparing for her junior year at Central Dauphin (Harrisburg, Pa.) High School.
“Watching her warm up in the layup line, you got chills because you knew what people were saying was spot on,” Frese said. “She was a woman among girls. You could see the big shoulders and her ability in the layup line. Then when the game started, she dominated from start to finish.”
By the end of the summer, Frese offered Thomas a scholarship. Soon after that, other schools — including Notre Dame, Penn State and Miami — joined the hunt.
“Alyssa didn’t like all the attention,” said her mother, Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas, “so she put an end to it by picking Maryland.”
These days, Thomas can’t avoid being noticed. The 6-foot-2 senior averages 18.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game for the ninth-ranked Terrapins and leads the NCAA with 22 double-doubles. With four triple-doubles this season, she is one of only four players in NCAA history with at least six in her career.
Thomas is 34 points short of topping Crystal Langhorne’s school record of 2,247 and 75 rebounds shy of supplanting Langhorne (1,229) as the school’s career leader. If those notable countdowns weren’t enough to make the notoriously shy Thomas a bit uncomfortable, the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year will have her No. 25 jersey hung from the rafters Sunday before her final regular season game on Maryland’s home court.
“It’s still hard to believe,” Thomas said. “When you first come to Maryland, you look up there and see all the big names of people that have made a legacy here. To think you’re going to be up there now, words just can’t describe the feeling.”
Thomas will be the ninth female Terp honored in such fashion.
“By far, she’s one of the best of the best,” Frese said. “From the moment A.T. stepped on campus and was given the nickname Baby Bron Bron by the men’s basketball team — a mini LeBron (James) — she’s backed it up.”
Funny thing is, Thomas was far more interested in excelling at soccer before her mother thrust a basketball into her hand when Alyssa was a third-grader.
“I didn’t ask her. I just did it,” said Klotzbeecher-Thomas, a former college forward.
Thomas quickly embraced the sport and honed her skills by playing 1-on-1 in the driveway against her brother, Devin, who now starts for Wake Forest.
“That’s where my physicality comes from,” Alyssa said.
At Maryland, she is more than just a force under the basket. In a recent game against Florida State, Thomas amassed a career-high 12 assists, along with 22 points and 12 rebounds, in an 87-77 victory.
“She’s good with the ball, she’s good without the ball. She’s good on the inside, she’s good on the outside,” Seminoles coach Sue Semrau said. “A kid that can be powerful inside and pass like that is just a special, special player.”
Thomas is far more vocal now than when she first arrived at Maryland, mostly when it comes to pushing her teammates to win.
“On the court you see how commanding she is — just ferocious and competitive,” Frese said. “Off the court, she’s really quiet and soft-spoken, really humble. Just a phenomenal teammate. It’s been neat to see her grow as a leader.”
The year before Thomas arrived, Maryland went 21-13. Since then, the Terrapins have gone 24-8, 31-5, 26-8 and now, 23-5.
The highlight thus far is winning the 2012 ACC tournament in North Carolina. While her teammates celebrated the improbable final victory near the bench, Thomas thanked every member of the Maryland band for making the trip.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud,” her mother said.
Thomas still has hopes of securing another ACC title and making one final run at the NCAA championship before heading to the WNBA. No matter how her final college season turns out, she will be forever grateful for the events that followed Frese’s fortuitous trip to Baltimore.
“I’m really happy with the decision to come here,” Thomas said. “They were one of the schools that pursued me before other people found out about how I could play. It just felt like home. I knew it was the right school for me.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)