As head coach of Maryland women’s basketball, Brenda Frese has missed the NCAA Tournament only twice in 17 seasons: first, during her inaugural season as at the helm (2002-03), and second, the year after the legendary duo of Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman graduated (2009-10). Without them that season, Maryland went 21-13 and had to settle for a trip to the WNIT Sweet Sixteen.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2010, when Alyssa Thomas stepped on campus.
Impacting the game at all levels, in various leagues
Thomas led the Terappins to four tournament appearances, including a Sweet Sixteen, an Elite Eight and a Final Four. She is now Maryland’s all-time leading scorer. As a member of the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA, she has made two All-Star teams behind play resembling a freight train powering through transition. She is a talented scorer, distributor and defender.
All those attributes make Thomas a star player. But what made her the best player at Maryland was her reliable mid-range game and free-throw shooting — both of which are now gone due to torn labra in both shoulders. Thomas no longer can lift her arms above her head to take shots other than layups and floaters. She shoots her free throws without lifting her arms all the way and she has become a 50-percent shooter from the stripe.
And yet, somehow, Thomas caught fire during the 2019 WNBA Finals and, more than a month since the Sun’s Game 5 loss to the Washington Mystics, she hasn’t slowed down. Now overseas playing for ZVVZ USK Praha, Thomas is leading her team with 20.5 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 4.8 steals per game.
Known for her endurance, Thomas played all 40 minutes of Games 1, 2 and 4 of the WNBA Finals and averaged 18.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 2.2 steals over the course of the five-game series. She was a crucial part of the Sun’s capacity to trade wins with the eventual champion Mystics, scoring 21 points in a Game 2 win to avoid going down 2-0; she scored 17 points in Game 4 to force Game 5.
Thomas, however, saved her best performance for an epic Game 5 that Connecticut lost 89-78. In that contest, her stat line was exactly the same as it was in Game 2 — 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists — save for one extra steal (two instead of one). If the Sun had won Game 5, she likely would have been named Finals MVP instead of Washington’s Emma Meesseman.
In college, before the injuries, it was unfathomable to think that Thomas could shine brighter than Delaware and now-Mystics superstar Elena Delle Donne, but she pretty much did that on the sport’s biggest stage. Albeit, Delle Donne had herniated discs in her back and wasn’t herself for three out of the five games. Still, Thomas and her bum shoulders out-played Delle Donne comfortably.
Outside of Game 2, Thomas also surpassed the Sun’s best player, Jonquel Jones. Both Delle Donne and Jones are two inches taller than Thomas and both can do it all on offense, including shoot from 3-point range. But Thomas’ toughness, heart and effort are what allowed her to be the best player in the series despite winding up on the losing side of the series.
Those bum shoulders
Thomas may be able to keep up her phenomenal play for Praha for the rest of her overseas season. But after that she will return to the competitiveness of the WNBA where the wear and tear on her shoulders may begin to show.
Recently, there has been controversy over New York Jets offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele being fined for going through surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, in an effort to reduce the pain. Thomas chose to play the 2019 season without surgery and, according to The Athletic’s Molly Yanity on Oct. 11, Thomas is not planning to get the surgery immediately.
Praha/Thomas game result
Praha took on UMMC Ekaterinburg in EuroLeague Group A regular-season play on Wednesday and Thomas scored 15 points and pulled down 17 boards in a losing effort. Praha had been undefeated and now stands at 3-1, while Ekaterinburg improved to 4-0.