The final three seconds felt like forever for the Maryland Terrapins.
Alyssa Thomas could only watch from her back as Shoni Schimmel’s potential game-tying 3-pointer flew to the basket before harmlessly clanging off the back rim and setting off a wild celebration by the Terps.
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Yes, Maryland is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since they won it all back in 2006 after holding off Louisville 76-73 Tuesday night at the buzzer in the Cardinals’ home arena.
”She had hit back-to-back, crazy, wild clutch shots,” Lexie Brown said of Louisville’s star senior. ”So for her to, it was a great look, and all I could do was pray that it didn’t go in.”
Maryland had been up 12 with 2:03 left when Louisville went on a furious rally. Maryland coach Brenda Frese even took a timeout after Thomas, her All-American, hit only one of two free throws with 3.5 seconds left, and Frese let her Terrapins decide whether to foul or play defense. The Terrapins chose to double-team Schimmel and tried to get a hand up.
”Obviously, it paid off for us,” Frese said.
Thomas scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as Maryland (28-6) reached its fourth Final Four all-time. The Terrapins pulled off their second straight upset in Louisville with this victory much harder in essentially a home game for the third-seeded Cardinals, with a crowd of 14,002 mostly in Louisville red.
Even though Frese said she’d just picture all the red inside the KFC Yum! Center as Maryland faithful no matter how loud they screamed, the Terrapins moved their bench onto the floor almost into the paint during timeouts.
”To be able to pull off this upset, it’s easy to say a team should win on their home court,” Frese said. ”But this team just keeps believing and they just keep staying grounded and we’ll continue to stay true to ourselves.”
Schimmel finished with 31 points with the final shot of her career a miss.
”I was actually kind of open for me to take that shot,” Schimmel said. ”We perfected it, the ball just didn’t go in. The one that didn’t go in was the last shot I wanted. But it just didn’t fall. Nothing much you can do about that.”
Louisville (33-5) missed a chance for a second straight Final Four with the Cardinals’ season ending shy of the national championship game they lost a year ago.
”It’s no question our goal was to get to Nashville, and unfortunately we fell a game short,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
Lexie Brown added 20 points for Maryland with her dad, former NBA player Dee, in the stands. Now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, he got the night off to watch his daughter play. Katie Rutan had 12 points, all on 3-pointers.
The fourth-seeded Terrapins will play undefeated Notre Dame on Sunday in Nashville in a national semifinal.
”Oh man, something that I’ve been wanting for four years, but we’re not done yet,” Thomas said. ”We still got two more games and hopefully get this national championship.”
Antonita Slaughter added 16 points for Louisville, and Asia Taylor had 12.
Schimmel went cold missing seven straight shots at one point in the second half. Then the senior nearly brought Louisville back from a 12-point deficit, scoring eight points within the final 18 seconds. Walz noted the Cardinals missed at least six layups and had several shots go in and out. But he said they didn’t quit, executing the final play to perfection except for going through the net.
”Unfortunately, for us it wasn’t our night,” Walz said.
Maryland outshot Louisville 45.8 percent to 34.3 percent and had a 38-36 edge on the boards. The Terrapins really took control at the free throw line where they went 25 of 28 compared to Louisville (11 of 13) to offset a season high 25 turnovers.
This game featured five ties and 12 lead changes, and Maryland took control by opening the second half with a 22-9 spurt, and the Terrapins capped that with 12 straight points going up 54-45 midway through the half. Thomas’ jumper with 13:47 put Maryland ahead to stay.
Louisville led 36-32 at halftime and used an 11-2 run that spanned the end of the first half and the opening minute of the second to take its biggest lead at 41-34 on a 3-pointer by Slaughter. Then the Cardinals went cold for more than 7 minutes. They missed nine consecutive shots with four turnovers during the drought.
When the Cardinals got going, it was too late and not even Schimmel’s frenzied finish was enough.