No. 10 Maryland (16-3, 7-1 ACC) couldn't be feeling much better about their home court advantage right now as Alyssa Thomas' exit and return after a scary landing in the first half led to a standing ovation at Comcast Center Thursday night that helped inspire the Terps and propel them to an 85-59 victory over North Carolina (18-2, 6-1 ACC), the highest ranked team they have defeated this year.
Tianna Hawkins was the game's high scorer with 25 points and Thomas again flirted with a triple-double, recording 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Meanwhile, freshman point guard Chloe Pavlech came up clutch again with 18 points and could be establishing a reputation as a big game performer.
Because this was a big game - just about as big as it gets for the Terps at home this year with the obvious exception of Duke coming up on Feb 24. North Carolina is ranked No. 11/16 in the nation and they entered Thursday night undefeated in conference play with just one loss overall. Not to mention Maryland was seeking revenge.
The Tar Heels got the better of the Terps, 60-57, back on Jan. 3 in Chapel Hill, but it goes without saying that with a 26-point win Maryland got their revenge.
Hawkins wasn't shy about admitting that the first meeting was on her mind either, saying, "We went down to North Carolina and gave them a game that we should have won. Today was all about revenge."
Thursday night was supposed to be a challenge for Maryland, but they had no problem keeping their perfect home record in tact.
North Carolina led twice: after the first basket of the game and then again with 9:39 remaining in the first half after a 8-0 run by them made the score 18-17.
Pavlech responded to that one-point deficit with five points in the next 57 seconds. Malina Howard and Hawkins would also hit jumpers to extend the run to 9-0 before UNC scored again.
With 5:17 remaining in the opening period, Thomas ran into UNC's Brittany Rountree and fell hard on the floor. A stunned Comcast crowd, that has seen so many players go down this year, could hardly stand watching as the Terps' most important puzzle piece of all seemed to be in a lot of pain before leaving the game.
But relief came and even before halftime. With 2:28 remaining in the first, Thomas subbed back in and Maryland never looked back, as they went on to lead, 37-25, at the break and outscored the Heels, 48-34, in the second.
After the game, Thomas explained what happened.
"I landed on my hip awkwardly and just kind of took some pain," the junior forward said. "They gave me some padded compression shorts and I just got back out there."
"It's definitely a scary moment when anyone lands that way, but nothing that hasn't happened before," Thomas added. "Just a bump."
For the Tar Heels, senior guard/forward Krista Gross had a solid game with 15 points and eight rebounds, while senior guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt also scored 15. When UNC beat Maryland on Jan. 3, they were 6 for 14 from beyond the arc. Thursday night? 1 for 19. And defensively they were unable to stop a hot, 58.2 percent shooting night by the Terps, unlike on Jan. 3 when they held Maryland to 23.5 percent shooting in the second half and 31.9 percent for the game.
"We played our game today," Thomas said. "We didn't let them really frustrate us and we were the more physical team out there today and they really had no answer for us."
"I think Maryland started out the game really well both defensively and offensively," said UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell. "They are a very good team and shot the ball very well. We haven't seen anyone shoot the ball like that on us all year."
Ultimately, the Tar Heels have now split with the No. 10 team in the country, but it is nevertheless frustrating to lose the second game in the fashion they lost Thursday night.
Meanwhile this is a high point in the Terps' season and after the game Maryland head coach Brenda Frese had nothing but positive things to say about her team, which only suited up eight players.
"This is just an amazing group," Frese said. "They just continue to keep finding ways. I don't know what more I can say about them. They continue to scratch and claw and fight and it doesn't matter who their opponent is, home, road, they continue to play for each other."
Maryland, who started the year ranked No. 5, avoided slipping further down than No. 10 and gained another resume-building win that will be important come seeding time. All things considered, it has been a pretty awesome six-game win streak over the past three weeks for the Terps, with this latest win being the highlight.
And when you take a step back after Thursday night, you realize Brenda Frese's crew is in really good shape as they approach the halfway point of ACC play. And that they still have the same lofty goals they had before the season began is remarkable when you consider all the adversity they have faced with injuries.
"They have separated themselves with their resiliency," said Frese of her team coping with injuries. "They lock in even more. They understand there's no room for error and they have to be better. It speaks volumes in terms of the character that we have in this locker room."
And they likely couldn't be having the success that they're having without Pavlech stepping up at point guard. She really wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the starting lineup this year, but has developed into the same type of budding star that Brene Moseley was last year. And the three times she has scored in double digits this year have come against then No. 24/25 Miami, No. 11/16 North Carolina and one of the nation's best in UConn.
"Chloe's a gamer." Frese said of her starting point guard. "To have her come out fearless with that kind of confidence - her teammates were able to feed off of that. And the bigger the stage, the bigger the moment, Chloe wants it. And those are great characteristics to be able to have."
However, Pavlech also realizes she still has things to improve on. After both of her previous double-digit performances she has been shut out in the following game.
"The next step for me is to get more consistent," Pavlech said. "Because you come off of this big game but then you don't play so well the next game. It's just really finding that balance and the ACC is a tough conference, so I'm just learning."
And don't forget about Katie Rutan either. She has started the past two games in place of the injured Tierney Pfirman and scored 10 points Thursday night, along with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. She also played a game-high 39 minutes.
"She's selfless, takes the most charges, does the dirty work that doesn't always show up on the stat sheet but means so much to this team," Frese said of Rutan. "I thought she was tremendous."
North Carolina will now travel to Miami (14-5, 5-3 ACC) to take on the Hurricanes at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Meanwhile, Maryland will travel to Clemson (5-13, 1-6 ACC) to meet the Tigers on Sunday at 5 p.m.