published Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Best versus best: Lady Vols, Terps match players of year

  • photo
    Tennessee's Meighan Simmons participates in shooting drills during practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday. Tennessee plays Maryland in a regional semifinal Sunday.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just because Tennessee and Maryland haven’t played each other much in women’s basketball doesn’t mean the programs aren’t familiar with each other’s success.

In today’s Louisville Regional noon semifinal, Tennessee’s top-seeded Lady Vols will try to keep a close watch on Alyssa Thomas while the fourth-seeded Terrapins will try to keep Meighan Simmons within reach.

The matchup between the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conference players of the year adds to what could shape up as this regional’s marquee matchup. But as both teams point out, their best players are surrounded by great supporting casts.

“I think you’ll see with both teams a lot of similar tendencies,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “Both teams want to rebound hard. Both teams are very up-tempo and have a lot of depth.

“Both teams are led, I think it’s ironic, by the ACC/SEC players of the year, and both have freshman point guards leading the way.”

Thomas, who earned her third consecutive ACC selection this season, will get a lot of attention from Tennessee. The 6-foot-2 senior forward averages 18.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game and has posted a school-record 64 double-doubles. That includes 16 points, all in the second half, and 11 rebounds in last Tuesday’s second-round win over Texas.

Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick plans to assign Cierra Burdick, Andraya Carter, Jasmine Jones and Bashaara Graves to defend Thomas.

“I just don’t think one person can guard her the whole game,” Warlick said, “so we’re going to mix it up and put different people on her — obviously put our best defenders on her.”

Frese has a similar respect for Simmons, a 5-9 senior guard averaging 16.1 points per contest. The coach plans to account for Simmons in a rare tournament game pitting the two best players from two of the nation’s best leagues.

Asked what she appreciates about this pairing, Frese said, “obviously, two incredible players that are seniors. One is going to be able to advance, and the other one’s senior season will be complete.”

Both Tennessee (29-5) and Maryland (26-6) are looking to return to the Final Four for the first time in several years. The programs’ first meeting since 2005 also is their first NCAA tournament matchup since the 1989 Final Four, which the Lady Vols won on the way to their second of eight titles.

Here are five things to look for when Tennessee faces Maryland:

Orange crush: With Knoxville and Louisville less than four hours apart and Tennessee fans known for traveling well, the KFC Yum! Center figures to be saturated with orange-clad followers. Upper-deck seating was opened to accommodate the demand, and there figures to be frequent renditions of Tennessee’s “Rocky Top” fight song. Frese prepared her team for that by playing it on a continuous loop during practice this week.

Terps’ freshman presence: First-year players Maryland Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Lexie Brown have been big contributors for Maryland. Brown and Walker-Kimbrough each averages 9.7 points per game, and Brown was named to the ACC’s all-freshman team. Brionna Jones has chipped in 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

Points in bunches: If statistics mean anything, Maryland vs. Tennessee won’t feature much defense. The Terrapins are ninth nationally in scoring at 82.9 points per game, nearly five more than the 22nd-ranked Volunteers.

Start better: Tennessee won both tournament games after slow starts that Warlick hopes will end today. “It’s been that way all year,” she said. “But I’m more concerned how we end it. … It seems to be once we get settled down, we play our game. I don’t have an answer to why we’re getting off to a slow start.”

Thomas’ toughness: While Thomas’ teammates appreciate her athletic ability, they’re also careful to avoid it. Asked if they take charges from her in practice, Brown quickly shook her head and said, “No. We know better. We save that for the opponents.”

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