COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) Alyssa Thomas and Jen Hazlett both have used college basketball to prepare for the next stages of their lives.
Thomas, a senior at Maryland and three-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, expects a lengthy career in the WNBA.
Hazlett, the lone senior on an Army team that won the Patriot League championship, will spend the next several years serving her country.
Before Thomas and Hazlett go their separate ways, they will meet on the court Sunday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Fourth-seeded Maryland (24-6) faces 13th-seed Army (25-7) before fifth-seed Texas (21-11) takes on No. 12 seed Penn (22-6), champions of the Ivy League.
Although Maryland has never faced Army, the Terrapins have a good idea what to expect. Two years ago, Maryland opened the tournament with a hard-fought 59-44 win over Navy.
Thomas knows that service academy teams traditionally play hard, are well-disciplined and fundamentally sound. They also do more than merely go to class and play hoops.
”I just have a great respect for them,” Thomas said Saturday. ”They get up at 6 a.m., do runs, play basketball and after this they’re going to serve our country.”
That exactly what is in store for Hazlett, a 5-foot-11 native of Utah. She will remain with the team as a graduate assistant until January before fulfilling her military obligation in Virginia and Georgia.
Hazlett’s time on the court was instrumental in preparing her for what lies ahead.
”Basketball has shaped my leadership style more than anything,” she said.
This will be Hazlett’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Thomas is 4 for 4, but during her stay the Terrapins have gotten past the Sweet 16 only once and have yet to reach the Final Four.
Thomas is the Maryland women’s career scoring leader with 2,258 and needs only 12 points to pass Juan Dixon’s school record.
”It’s not really on top of my list right now,” she said. ”It’s more about trying to get a national championship.”
Here are five things to know about Sunday’s games in College Park:
PENN IS MIGHTIER: After going 12-18 last year, Texas is making its first appearance under second-year coach Karen Aston. The Longhorns won’t be taking Penn lightly, even though the Ivy League is 1-21 in NCAA tournament play.
”When you watch film of Penn, I don’t think we will consider ourselves a heavy favorite at all,” Aston said. ”They have a lot of confidence, and we don’t have a lot of players who have won games in the NCAA tournament. So, we’re somewhat on a level playing field as far as that is concerned.”
SHARP SHOOTER: Army sophomore Kelsey Minato is averaging 21.8 points per game and is coming off a 31-point performance in the Patriot League title game against Holy Cross.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese called Minato ”the real deal,” adding, ”It will be a difficult matchup for us.”
But if Army is to pull off an upset, it will be by virtue of a defense that limited opponents to a 37 percent field-goal percentage.
”Defense is what propels us to win games and to be productive on offense,” Minato said. ”It all starts on the defensive end.”
BLOCK PARTY: In preparing for Penn, the Longhorns have paid particular attention to watching 6-3 freshman center Sydney Stipanovich, whose 98 blocks this season were more than twice that of the Ivy League runner-up. More importantly, the Quakers are 13-1 when she starts.
”She doesn’t really carry herself like a freshman,” Aston said. ”Obviously her shot-blocking ability jumps out at your pretty quickly, but her composure has been the most impressive thing to me.”
Stipanovich got her chance to shine after Katy Allen went out with a foot injury in late February.
”Sydney has been special for us and was special right from the beginning,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. ”Once we made that change I wasn’t going to turn back.”
IGNORING HISTORY: Penn takes a five-game winning streak into the matchup. In their two previous NCAA tournament appearances, the Quakers lost as a No. 15 seed to Texas Tech 100-57 in 2001 and fell as a No. 15 seed to Connecticut 91-55 in 2004.
The Ivy League is 1-21 in the NCAA tournament, but that has no bearing on Penn’s motivation to win.
”One-and-21 is not something we look at,” McLaughlin said. ”This is about the University of Pennsylvania.”
EAGER FOR ACTION: Maryland hasn’t played since losing to Duke on March 7 in the ACC tournament. Since that time, Frese has worked the team hard.
”I guarantee you, no game will be tougher than what they went through the last two weeks,” she said.
Frese recalled a similar break in December, when the Terps had two weeks off for exams and returned to win seven straight.
”It was pretty exciting when we came back,” Frese said. ”We were really fresh and ready to perform and hungry.”