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Michelle Smith: Arizona's Sam Thomas begins final stretch of storied career

Mar 17, 2022
Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

It took Sam Thomas just one day after Arizona played for the national championship last April to announce that she would come back to the Wildcats for a fifth season.

The time is running short again, but this time, there is no big announcement coming from the 6-foot forward from Las Vegas. Only as many games as the Wildcats can win in the NCAA Tournament and an acknowledgement of what Thomas has meant to Adia Barnes’ program.

Thomas is a five-time captain, one of the first players recruited to come to Tucson by Barnes as she began the rebuilding at her alma mater.

“Coming in here, I knew we weren’t going to be winning the Pac-12 championship anytime soon, but I didn’t know we’d win only six games (in her freshman season),” Thomas said. “But I believed in her vision and we had some players like Aari (McDonald) and Tee Tee (Starks) coming in and I knew we’d be pretty good. Then, last year, we are in the national championship game. My expectations have been surpassed and it’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for being here. I never imagined any of this happening.”

On Saturday night, Thomas will begin the final stretch of her career standing on the other side of center court from her younger sister Jade, a guard for the UNLV program that will come to McKale - for the third NCAA women’s game ever played on this storied court - looking to upset the fourth-seeded Wildcats. It is UNLV’s first tournament appearance since 2002.

“For Sam it’s special,” Barnes said. “Their roles are a little different, but it’s just exciting.”

Barnes joked that she told Thomas she can’t share secrets with her younger sis.

”She said, ‘No. I want to beat them.’” Barnes said.

Thomas’ parents, Derek and Julie, are breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to split up the family to go to cover two games, and they will be busting out some Arizona/UNLV combo jerseys that their daughters bought them for Christmas. 

“They are so happy,” Thomas said. “And I’m definitely looking forward to it. I know that one of our seasons is going to end, but it’s going to be exciting.”

Thomas has been one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12 throughout her career, earning All-Defensive team honors for three straight seasons, and has led Arizona in blocks over the past three, blocking 27 shots in 27 games this season.

She doubles as its most dangerous perimeter threat as well.

The team leader in minutes played (30.5 mpg), Thomas is averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 rebounds a game, with nine games in double figures and a breakout day against Utah earlier this season in which she collected 25 points, including six 3-pointers. She leads the team in 3-pointers made (45) and averages 2.2 assists per game.

Thomas was named the 2021 Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year. She will leave Arizona with her master's in educational leadership.

“Sam has been so important to our program,” Barnes said. “She has been a leader on and off the court, a spokesperson, she always does the right thing and she’s not afraid of the difficult things. She’s coachable and consistent and she has been that for us.”

Barnes said she’s watched Thomas evolve from an introverted freshman to a senior who spoke to Congress about NIL opportunities for student-athletes.

“She’s grown so much on the court and off,” Barnes said. “And I’ve always known what I will get from her.”

Thomas said her final season has gone faster than any other. 

“It feels so soon that we are back in the tournament already,” Thomas said. “It feels like we were just there a month ago. But I think I’m ready. This is how I want to go out.”