SAN ANTONIO — Sam Thomas hasn’t decided if she will return to Arizona for a fifth season. The big question she faces: does she want to leave the program on a high note?
“I would consider this a high even though we didn’t end up winning,” she said moments after Arizona lost to Stanford in the national championship game. “I mean, we’ve made history and we always say, ‘Leave a legacy.’ I think I’ve left my legacy here at this program.”
In just four seasons, Thomas helped take Arizona from six wins to its first-ever Final Four. If you told her she was going to reach heights like that when she joined the program, she would have shot you a quizzical look.
A high four-star recruit, Thomas committed to the Wildcats when players of her caliber wouldn’t dare touch the program. They had not sniffed the NCAA Tournament, or even a winning season, in years.
And even though head coach Adia Barnes said Thomas had many emotional moments and even considered transferring during her freshman season, she stuck it out because of her faith in Barnes, who was determined to change the program’s losing culture.
“As soon as I came on my visit, I knew this was a special place and she kept being honest with me, being straight up saying, ‘we’re not going to be top-three team in the Pac-12’ and I knew that coming in, so it wasn’t like I was blindsided by six wins,” Thomas said. “I knew we weren’t going to be the best team, but I just trusted her. I took a leap of faith and I trusted her, she trusted me and we’ve been riding this out. Now we’re at the Final Four.”
While Aari McDonald was the star of Arizona’s Final Four team, Thomas was the glue that held it all together. On the court, she was a defensive wizard, an 1,000-point scorer, a reliable shooter and an overall all-conference talent. Off of it, she embodied all the qualities Barnes values in her student-athletes.
Barnes has said many times that she would clone Thomas if she could.
“Sam is like everything to us,” Barnes said earlier in the season. “She is a tremendous leader off the court. She’s our SAAC president here. She’s a role model. She’s the perfect student. I mean, she’s a leader in the locker room. She’s someone who always tells her teammates where to go, what to wear. She keeps us on point. On the court she’s selfless. I have to tell her to be a little bit more selfish. … Great teammate, she’s one of the most underrated defenders in the country. If you watch her, and you look at the little things she does, they just don’t always show up on stat sheets. … She locks down her opponent every single game and they can be the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. And she’s our team captain, so I can’t say enough about her and I would love to coach her for another year.”
Thomas has other options. She has already graduated from the UA and has a job waiting for her at Nike, where she interned last summer. Or she could go pro overseas and use her basketball skills to make some coin.
Either way, she has already cemented herself as an Arizona women’s basketball icon.
“We can’t hang our heads,” Thomas said. “We’ve done some amazing things and we’re just so proud of what we’ve done as a team and all the hard work that pays off.
“I’m gonna remember obviously all the girls I’ve been playing with. Aari, obviously I’m gonna miss her a lot. Trinity, all the seniors, and then everyone else that’s still gonna be here, I’ll just miss playing with them, but I’m also just gonna remember this run that we made in this tournament. It was a crazy experience and I think now we’ll actually have time to look back and think about the history that we just made.”