Freshmen in control for Notre Dame-Maryland showdown

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Freshmen Lindsay Allen and Lexie Brown have been to the Final Four before — the two played in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association High School All-America Game a day before the college teams took the court last April in New Orleans.

Now at the close of their freshman seasons, the two meet again with a spot in the NCAA Championship on the line.

Allen, a 5-foot-7 point guard, left her home state of Maryland to enroll at Notre Dame. Brown, a 5-9 point guard, uprooted from Georgia to join the Terrapins. It didn’t take either long to break into the starting lineup.

“Last year we were talking about how she was going to an incredible program and I was going to an incredible program and maybe we’ll meet up,” Brown said. “I really didn’t think that would be this soon. It’s awesome.”

The paths to a starting role weren’t the same for Allen and Brown. Allen faced the impossible task of sliding into the starting spot left by hometown hero Skylar Diggins. Allen started the first game of the season and has held tightly onto the position.

“There were some challenges at first learning the offense and knowing what to run, who to run it for and things like that,” Allen said. “Knowing where people like the ball and figuring out everybody’s tendencies was really the first challenge that I experienced.”

The pressure eased off of Allen with the help of backcourt stars Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, who both can bring the ball down to start the offense.

Allen quickly lost the sense of being a rookie.

“On the court, I definitely don’t feel like a freshman,” Allen said. “The opponent’s going to attack you either way. You can be a freshman, you can be a senior — they’re still going to attack you.”

Brown started the season as a reserve, but earned the starting role four games into the season following a strong performance in a loss to UConn. That’s when Maryland head coach Brenda Frese pulled Brown aside and told her it was her time.

“Coach and I, we had a long talk,” Brown said. “She was like, ‘I’m putting you here. You cannot be a freshman. I know you’re going to make mistakes but you can’t react to them like a freshman would.’ I understood that, but it didn’t really come into play probably until halfway through the ACC season.”

She took her lumps at times. Two games into the ACC schedule, Brown notched a zero in the box score in a win against Wake Forest. She followed that up with a two-point performance against Syracuse.

“As a point guard, you have to keep your poise the entire game. And at the beginning that was very tough for me to do,” Brown said. “But as the season progressed, I met a lot with Coach B, and my teammates have really helped me with that. When you have your poise, really nothing can go wrong in the game because you're there mentally.”

Kara Lawson knows the feeling. Now an ESPN studio analyst, Lawson started 34 games as a freshman for a Tennessee team that lost in the 2000 title game to UConn.

“It’s not easy being a freshman point guard around talented players and having to learn stuff and run it,” Lawson said. “You’re kind of in the position that’s supposed to be the leader, but you don’t have all your stuff together yet. You have to grow as the season goes along. For those two to have done that all year and be where they are now, that’s unusual. It speaks to their maturity.”

The loss to Notre Dame at the end of January may have been a turning point for Brown. She scored all nine of her points in the second half as part of a comeback effort that fell just short. In the next two games, Brown produced 51 points.

“She really played well down the stretch in that game and since then has played extremely well,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw. “She had so much poise in the Louisville game, making some big free throws and some big shots down the stretch. … She presents a lot of problems for us. She’s somebody that we really have to be aware of.”

Brown has reached double digits in points in eight of the last 10 Maryland games and pushed her season average to 10.1 points and 4.2 assists. As success has come, so has the confidence.

“Lexie's somebody that has to be comfortable to be confident,” Frese said. “So it took a while obviously, for her to get that comfort for us, to grow with the team and really understand one another. But Lexie's playing some of her best basketball right now and it couldn't have come at a better time.”

Lawson and the ESPN crew met with both teams on Friday. She left impressed with a pair of freshman point guards filling a role she once lived. Only one will get a chance to guide a team in Tuesday’s championship.

“If you would have walked in the room and you didn’t know them, you wouldn’t have known those were two freshmen,” Lawson said. “They have a great deal of confidence, quiet confidence, and they gained the respect of their teammates in that short period of time.”

Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen will be matched against another freshman in Maryland's Lexie Brown, in Sunday's national semifinals. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN).
Maryland's Lexie Brown at practice during the NCAA Women's Final Four media day events on Saturday, April 5, 2014, inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN