- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- In the minutes before Maryland's practice here at PNC Arena, sophomore forward Alyssa Thomas wielded a foam roller like a Jedi Knight.
She and two teammates raced around the court, laughing, avoiding each other's looping swings.
Some coaches might have told their kids to cut it out, to stay focused, to stop using foam rollers like swords. But not Maryland's coaching staff.
Coach Brenda Frese was still in a back room, finishing a TV interview, but if she'd been there, she'd probably have been more pleased than concerned. She spent last weekend watching her team press, stone-faced and tense, to do something it had been unable to do the season prior: win two home games to advance to the Sweet 16.
Maryland needed to exhale, needed to relax. And the Terrapins certainly have.
On Sunday, the No. 2 seeded Terps play No. 3 seeded Texas A&M, the defending national champion, in an NCAA regional semifinal (ESPN/ESPN3, 12 p.m. ET). Maryland is feeling free, and loose, and confident.
They're on a trip they make twice a year during ACC play. They have a familiarity with PNC Arena that none of the other teams -- No. 1 seeded Notre Dame plays No. 5 seeded St. Bonaventure in Sunday's second game (ESPN2/ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET) -- can claim. Frese can even take her players to the same restaurant, Bonefish Grill, where they eat during the regular season.
So excuse the Maryland Terrapins if they're ready to launch themselves from below the radar, which is where they've been flying for much of this season.
"There is no pressure on Maryland," senior point guard Anjale Barrett said. "We are going to go out to play Maryland basketball."
Barrett really means there is no more pressure on Maryland. The Terps felt at least a pinch of stress to avoid repeating last season's NCAA failure. Maryland's 2010-11 season ended in the NCAA's second round, when No. 5 seeded Georgetown smoked the 4-seeded Terps 79-57 on their home floor. But last year's team was without a senior and led by two freshmen. This year's team, which slipped past No. 6 seed Louisville to advance to Raleigh, has three seniors and a sophomore class that plays with impressive maturity.
"I don't think Maryland is young because those sophomores grew up a lot last year," Aggies coach Gary Blair said.
Maryland is led by sophomores Laurin Mincy, who averages 13.2 points a game, and Thomas, 17.1 points and eight rebounds per game. But they'll only advance if they play "12 Strong," which is the motto they adopted after losing at home to Virginia Tech, a game Thomas missed with injury. Since then, Frese has reinforced that on any given night, anyone can -- and will -- shine. Take the victory over Louisville, for example. Thomas was in foul trouble all night. She scored only six points. So instead of allowing the offense to crumble, Mincy basically doubled her scoring average, dropping 24 points on the Cardinals.
"For us to be able to get back into the national conversation this season makes me really proud of our team in terms of what we had to improve on to get us to this point," Frese said.
Despite being the defending champs, the Aggies have also flown below the radar for much of this season. That has a lot to do with the stars who graduated off last season's team, but also because Texas A&M plays a "win by committee" style. It's hard to peg a headline to a team that has a slew of really good players, but no shining star.
"Our team is not just about one or two people," said Kelsey Bone, who's one of four Aggies averaging double figures. "We say when four or five score in double digits, we'll win nine out of 10 games."
On Sunday, they'll need a "rebound by committee" effort to defeat Maryland, who punishes opponents on the boards. The Aggies average 38.4 boards a game, while Maryland collects 45.9.
When asked about how his team will manage to keep the long and powerful Terps off the glass, Blair dropped a little inside info about his high school coaching days. Blair drove off on a tangent, but it was entertaining, and he eventually circled back around.
"I had the best rebounder in the NBA for three years in high school," Blair says, referring to former NBA star Dennis Rodman. "I didn't learn anything from Dennis back then, because he couldn't play better than any of you all, but rebounding is an attitude."
And because rebounding is an attitude, the Aggies know they have a chance. In the first round, No. 14 seed Albany overpowered Texas A&M on the boards, 48-33. After the game, the Aggies' coaching staff lit into their team. In the second round, Texas A&M won the rebounding battle over a much better SEC team, Arkansas.
"Sometimes this team chooses when they want to turn it on and when they want to turn it off," senior guard Sydney Carter said.
Added Bone: "We can't have any more off days. We have to be on at all times."
Texas A&M believes if it plays its traditional, swarming defense, stealing the ball and running out in transition, it won't have to worry so much about sitting in a half-court set and blocking out the bigger Terps. Carter even mentioned making Maryland "uncomfortable."
That'll take a lot of effort from the Aggies, because the Terps look pretty darn comfortable down here in Raleigh.
14dBonnie D. Ford