For four years, Sam Thomas has been the glue that holds Arizona women’s basketball together. She has the toughest defensive assignment. At six feet tall, she has played every position on the court, although she is primarily a small forward. But when people talk about the rise of the Wildcats, it’s always Aari McDonald or Cate Reese who are mentioned.
This season, Thomas is finally getting national recognition. On Wednesday, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced the 20 players who made the preseason watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award. The award honors the nation’s best small forward. This season, Thomas is on that list.
“I think it took us going to the championship game for people to recognize her,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “And it wasn’t her best performance throughout the tournament, but she’s been consistent all year. I think it’s about time. It took five years for people to respect her.”
Reese also believes the Wildcats’ Final Four run made people sit up and take notice of Thomas.
“I think last year, just the defensive mentality she had in the tournament, I think she kind of showed to other people what she can do,” Reese said.
Thomas was the player who first threw in with the vision Barnes had for the Wildcats. Her father Derek Thomas has talked about how Thomas became the first top 100 recruit to commit to Barnes.
“I was shocked,” Derek said in March 2020. “I think the relationships (Sam) built with (Barnes), Sam really felt something that she was going to do something good out there. And she took a lot of criticism for it. A lot of people were laughing at her for not going to the other schools and going to Arizona, so she took quite a beating there for a while.”
Thomas has had the last laugh. It happens when a player is a central piece to a rise from six wins to a national championship appearance. She does it by being someone her head coach “can’t keep off the floor.”
“Sam can have zero points and nothing will show up on the stat sheet,” Barnes said. “But she’s locking someone down on defense, she’s blocking shots, she’s maybe tipping the ball that someone else gets for a steal.”
Thomas has started every game since she stepped foot on campus in 2017. In her first season, she led all Pac-12 freshmen in rebounding, steals, blocks and minutes played as well as being second in scoring. She was the only Pac-12 player regardless of year to be top 10 in rebounds, steals, and blocks. That was enough to get her on the 2017-18 Pac-12 All-Freshman team, but for the first time she was snubbed for a major award when the Freshman of the Year went to Oregon’s Satou Sabally.
Thomas stepped out of the spotlight her sophomore season when McDonald and Reese joined her on the court. Her importance to Arizona’s success was no less pronounced as the team took the crown in the postseason WNIT. She showed her versatility once again as the only Pac-12 player to average at least 1.4 blocks and steals per game.
As a junior, Thomas proved her value on both offense and defense. She became the first player in Arizona history to have at least 100 blocks and 100 made 3-pointers. It earned her a place on the Pac-12 All-Defense team and an honorable mention nod on the All-Pac-12 team. She also completed her bachelor’s degree at the end of the year.
Last season could have been her last go-round in college basketball. If it was, Thomas would still have gone out in style. The senior was second in the Pac-12 in steals per game at 2.3. She trailed only her teammate McDonald.
While starting every game in her team’s run to the national title game, Thomas was named the 2021 Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Her on-court performance snagged All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Defense honors. At the Final Four, she won the Elite 90 award for having the highest GPA of any athlete participating.
In her final season as a Wildcat, people outside the Pac-12 are finally taking notice. Thomas was one of just two Pac-12 small forwards to make the Cheryl Miller Award watchlist. She joins fellow Final Four participant Haley Jones of Stanford.