Terrapins Head Coach Brenda Frese has gone from calling Alyssa Thomas the most "ferocious" competitor she's ever coached to calling her one of the greatest players ever at Maryland.
By the end of the 2013-14 season, everybody may be dropping the "one of" and just start calling Thomas the single greatest player in Maryland women's basketball history.
However, Thomas herself, a senior forward who has a good shot at breaking the all-time scoring record at UMD and has filled up the entire stat sheet arguably better than anyone at any level of women's basketball ever, won't be satisfied without a championship to cap her Terrapin career.
"It's the last season, last chance at it," Thomas said of winning a national title. "I definitely don't want to leave Maryland without one."
Four years ago, Thomas, a 6-2 Harrisburg, Pa. native, chose Maryland over Notre Dame, Penn State, Miami and N.C. State and has done nothing but will the Terps to victory ever since.
In her freshman season of 2010-11, she was Maryland's leading scorer - a title she will likely hold each of her collegiate years - and helped lead them back to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence, a rare occurrence under Frese.
As a sophomore, Thomas won her first ACC Player of the Year award and led the Terps to an ACC tournament championship - her personal favorite moment of college so far - as well as the Elite Eight.
In 2012-13, Alyssa's junior campaign, Maryland likely would have taken a step forward from that Elite Eight appearance, but injuries forced them to take a step back and settle for a Sweet 16 finish. Meanwhile, Thomas was named ACC Player of the Year for the second year in a row, this time sharing the award with Duke's Chelsea Gray. Her average of 18-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists per game last year has never been accomplished in a single season by anybody else in NCAA women's or WNBA history.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas is that she has improved her scoring, rebounding and assist averages each year she has been in college. That is saying something for someone who put up solid numbers as a freshman.
Maryland redshirt junior guard Laurin Mincy, who entered the Terps' program with Thomas as a freshman in 2010, says Alyssa showed signs of being great early on.
"We had a couple instances before we got [to Maryland] where we played against each other in AAU and it was really competitive," Mincy said. "She was strong then and obviously when she came [to Maryland] she had a big impact on the team and she just took that from there and got better each year."
Thomas has yet to reach the Final Four, but has at the very least bridged the small one-year gap between two periods of Maryland excellence. She has become the next great player in a program with a proud tradition and may be the next name hanging from the Comcast Center rafters on the women's side after Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver, who both played from 2006 to 2009.
And national championship or not, she may go down as the best of any of those names hanging from the rafters, perhaps even better than the trio of Coleman, Toliver and Crystal Langhorne, who are currently the only three members of the 2,000-point club for the Maryland women.
Frese, who coached that trio to a national championship in 2006, said of Thomas: "[She's a] once-in-a-lifetime player to be able to coach."
Thomas' basketball career began at the age of five, but reluctantly. She was more into soccer originally, which makes sense since one of her most defining characteristics as a basketball player is her ability to blow by opponents in the open court and lead a fast break.
"I was so shy that I didn't want to play [basketball]," Thomas said. "So my mom kind of forced me to play just to break out of my shell.
"I used to like soccer more than basketball. But then when it came to the weather conditions and raining and stuff, I didn't really care for that. So I just kind of transitioned to playing basketball," Thomas said.
Basketball stuck and Alyssa went on to star at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg. Her younger brother Devin followed in her footsteps and famously shattered a backboard with a dunk while at Central Dauphin, earning him a spot on SportsCenter's top plays. Later that week, Alyssa one-upped him with a game-ending block against Duke, a play that finished ahead of Devin's dunk on SportsCenter's countdown for top plays of the week. This only added to what Alyssa describes as a very competitive relationship she has with her brother, who is now a sophomore on Wake Forest's men's basketball team. Alyssa also said her youngest sibling Alexia has started playing AAU and that basketball is "definitely a big part" of her family.
And it is going to continue to be a big part, now that the girl who started playing basketball to get over her shyness is a likely WNBA lottery pick in the 2014 draft. All these years later, Alyssa Thomas' calm and quiet personality remains, but she has found a way to express herself on a basketball court, which is where you see the ferociousness come out.
"She's always been really competitive," Maryland senior guard Sequoia Austin said of Thomas. "But even kind of shy, so that throws you off a little bit when you first meet her as a person. Then you see her on the court and how she's gonna be."
Alyssa has had her fair share of clutch moments followed by emphatic celebrations during her first three years at Maryland. So don't let her typically quiet demeanor fool you. During 2011-12 her favorite pre-game song was "Who Gon' Stop Me" by Jay-Z and Kanye West. She knows how good she is, even if she isn't flashy about it.
"Your teammates look to you and if you're confident then your confidence translates to them," Thomas said. "As a leader you just have to be confident in yourself and know that your teammates believe in you."
"[Alyssa] being a shy person, she's definitely come into a role as a leader on this team," Austin said. "[She's always] very passionate about the time we have together and the limited opportunities we have on the court ... she's been able to speak up and always make us aware that we gotta go hard every time just like she is."
And Thomas knows now more than ever that every opportunity on the court is precious. Maryland lost to No. 1 UConn on Nov. 15 by 17 points in what was yet another failed attempt during the Thomas era to elevate the program to the very top of women's basketball.
Maryland has been a top-5 team with Alyssa, but has never finished the season as the No. 1 team, a frustrating fact for Thomas, who said that even as a kid she "would do whatever it took not to lose."
But win or lose, Thomas' college legacy will be hard to forget because of the way she has played the game. She may not have the stroke of an Elena Delle Donne, but her ability to take over a game with her physicality is captivating in its own right and makes her unique.
Thomas is a small forward with guard-like speed and ball-handling skills as well as the strength to be a force on the glass and put up the rebounding numbers of a power forward or center. Her versatility has earned her the nickname "The Female LeBron."
"I don't think, when you look at the college scene, that any player has ever been asked to do more than Alyssa Thomas has when you talk about having to lead this team last year in scoring, as well as at the point guard position," Frese said. "And this season we'll be asking Alyssa to really provide some depth for us inside, which is an area that she's been doing extremely well with.
"I think that speaks volumes in terms of who she is. I mean she can play every single position on the court and she does it with a will to win [and] to be able to help the name across her chest," Frese said.
Thomas is actually a pretty good mid-range shooter as well when she gets in a groove. But, like LeBron, it is something that she is trying to improve.
"I think the biggest thing for [Alyssa] has always been trying to extend that [shooting] range out to the 3-point line." Frese said. "Can't say it's all the way there yet, but it's something that she has worked extremely hard on."
As for "The Female LeBron," Thomas has embraced the nickname.
"LeBron's a great player, so to be compared to him is definitely an honor," Thomas said. "He's a very versatile player. He can bring the ball up, he can play inside and I definitely try to model my game after him."
With 1,874 career points at UMD, Thomas is just five shy of passing Shay Doron for fifth on the the all-time Maryland women's basketball scoring list. 391 more after that and Thomas would break both Langhorne's record of 2,247 for Maryland women's basketball and Juan Dixon's UMD record on the men's side of 2,269. With her current career average of 16.9 points per game, Thomas is on track to hit 2,270 points 24 games from now. She has 18 remaining games in the regular season, which means she would have to play in at least six postseason games between the ACC and NCAA tournaments to break the school record at the pace she's at. With the Terps being as good as they are, it's a likely scenario. Thomas also has a shot at breaking Langhorne's UMD career rebounds record if she keeps rebounding at her current season rate of 11.3 boards per game and not her career rate of 8.8.
And Alyssa's 2013-14 season already has a historic feel to it. On Dec. 9, she recorded her third career triple-double with 12 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists against Siena. Outside of Thomas' three, only one other triple-double has been recorded in Maryland women's basketball history and only three more have occurred on the men's side.
Thomas has also recorded a double-double in 10 straight games, which includes every game this season except for the Terps' opener at South Florida, a contest in which Alyssa only saw 10 minutes of action.
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•Testudo TimesAnd that's for this season alone since she won nine total in her college career. The highlight of her performance last week was her triple double against Siena on December 9.
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It was never a forgone conclusion that Thomas would in fact improve each year of college - not when each performance became harder and harder to one-up. But 11 games into 2013-14, she is still ascending toward a peak she has not yet reached.
Coach Frese said her star forward is "savoring every moment" of her remaining college career and Terp fans are likely doing the same.
When asked about being compared to Coleman, Toliver and Langhorne, Thomas said she is honored "just to be in the same sentence as one of them ... because they've done so much for Maryland."
So too has Thomas.
She could have gone to Notre Dame, a school that ended up having a great run during her time in college. Maryland has had a great run as well, but Thomas says the direction of the program wasn't the biggest factor in her decision at all.
"For me it was about where I felt most comfortable and felt most at home," Thomas said. "And I just loved everything about Maryland. I loved the coaching staff, the players and just the school itself. It really is like my home away from home."