COLLEGE PARK, MD. – One day, this will be a normal thing: two conference foes duking it out in the Big Ten.
But on Monday night, it was for much more than that with a berth to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on the line.
The Spartans had no answer for the versatile Maryland standout, who sent MSU packing from the Big Dance in the second round with 28 points on 12-of-18 shooting in a 74-49 rout.
“It’s not an easy way to lose, and we just didn’t play the way we had been playing,” Merchant said.
“But give Maryland a lot of credit, Alyssa Thomas really was impossible for us to get stopped at any point, and it just obviously steamrolled from there.”
For a change, MSU faced a team that was just as strapped for bodies and depth as it was. Maryland has faced a bevy of injuries to key players, including its starting backcourt, limiting its rotation to six players.
The difference was the Terrapins had Thomas, the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year.
Sophomore Becca Mills scored the game’s opening bucket less than two minutes, which would prove to be MSU’s only lead of the night.
Mills and junior forward Annalise Pickrel shared the team-high in scoring with 12 points each. No other Spartan scored more than six points.
Maryland’s potent frontcourt established itself early as Thomas and 6-foot-4 center Alicia DeVaughn scored 10 straight points for the Terrapins.
It was the MSU bench that responded with a layup from sophomore center Jasmine Hines and a 3-pointer from Pickrel to put the score at 10-9 in Maryland’s favor with 14:12 remaining in the first half.
That was as close as it would get the rest of the game for the Spartans. The Terrapins stayed true to themselves by doing what they’ve done all year in riding their skilled frontcourt players – Maryland out-rebounded MSU by 14 – and running in transition.
“A lot of people talk about how they’re going to stop our transition, but once they get out there, they realize how hard it really is to stop us,” Thomas said. “And once we get going, there’s no stopping our transition.”
Maryland led 30-15 after a 20-6 run through the next 10 minutes, leaving the Spartans in a deep hole before they could even get to the locker room to regroup at halftime.
A layup from senior forward Courtney Schiffauer sparked a 6-0 run for MSU to cut the Terrapins’ lead to nine with less than two minutes left in the first half.
But then another bucket from Thomas kept the Spartans a double-digit distance away.
MSU went into the halftime trailing 34-23 and had yet to shoot a free throw in the first 20 minutes. The Spartans only attempted two foul shots in a game that was called very loosely in the paint by the officials.
“(The officiating) didn’t dictate whether we won or lost the game. I mean, Alyssa Thomas won the game in the first half,” Merchant said.
The Spartans couldn’t cut the margin to less than nine points throughout a mostly forgettable second half. Maryland grew the lead as large as 29 points at one time.
If there was one bright spot in the final 20 minutes of MSU’s season, it was senior guard Tracy Nogle checking in and nailing a 3-pointer on her first shot of the night, which would prove to be the Spartans’ final field goal.
MSU really needed the scoring prowess of guards Jasmine Thomas, a senior, and junior Klarissa Bell, who typically lifted the Spartans from scoring droughts. Thomas scored six while Bell was held scoreless.
“I really don’t want to credit Maryland because I don’t think Michigan State played their basketball,” Jasmine Thomas said. “Credit to them for playing their game, they were very strong offensively and off the boards and we knew that coming in. I think we got a little bit away from our game plan.”
The Spartans end the 2012-13 season 25-9 overall in their fifth-consecutive NCAA Tournament.