Every now and then, there comes a player that means so much to a program, the last thing a fan, fellow player or coach could imagine is them eventually leaving after their collegiate career is over.
That is what senior forward Sam Thomas was to women’s basketball at Arizona.
Since getting to Tucson in 2017, Thomas has made a huge name for herself. She, along with head coach Adia Barnes, who joined Arizona in 2016, turned the program around and went from a 6-24 record in 2017-18 to winning the WNIT title in 2019 and almost claiming the 2021 NCAA basketball championship.
Arizona made its way to the championship game against Stanford by upsetting Texas A&M and UConn.
Thomas did not make it that far this season, but the Wildcats experienced the NCAA tournament at McKale Center, one of her objectives to achieve before calling it a career.
She played her final game at McKale on Monday in the second-round loss to No. 5 North Carolina 63-45.
“I don’t think there’s words for the experience I’ve had with my time here,” Thomas said. “It’s been anything more than I could have wished for or imagined. Coming in, winning six games my freshman year, and the run we had this year and last year, making it in the tournament, it’s been an incredible time.”
Thomas’ parents Derek and Julie and sister Jade sat a few rows behind the Wildcat bench, cheering and applauding her throughout the game.
Thomas scored a team-high 15 points in the loss and added two rebounds. The fan-favorite did her best to help her team get back into the game.
In the second quarter with a minute remaining, Thomas hit a 3-point shot to bring the Wildcats within nine points. The crowd erupted.
Thomas did the same in the fourth quarter, this time scoring her last four points in the paint. The fans became louder.
With about two seconds left before the final buzzer, Barnes called a timeout to sub Thomas out. The 8,333 fans in attendance gave the longtime Wildcat a standing ovation before she took her seat.
Thomas gave her teammates and coaches hugs.
“These fans and this team have been everything for me,” Thomas said. “Yeah, talking with Cate who has obviously been here through four of my five years here, I’ve lived with her the last three years. She’s like family to me now. Her sister and I were best friends. We came in together as well as freshmen. She was on the team.
“So I just built a great relationship with her. Obviously seeing her cry is going to make me cry. I was trying to hold it in the best I could, but once I saw her and she was saying she’s going to miss me next year, it’s not going to be the same; and I just really wanted to take that moment with her.”
No matter where Thomas goes, she knows that she will have Arizona fans supporting her.
And obviously just exiting the court and looking at everyone in the arena, knowing it’s my last time being on the court as a Wildcat in my uniform, it’s just knowing that I think the fans are going to follow me on my next adventure in life,” Thomas said. “They are all like family to me and they just made this place a great place to be.”
After the game, Thomas, clearly emotional, still took the podium alongside Barnes and guard Bendu Yeaney. She had her usual smile that fans have grown accustomed to and answered with that same upbeat attitude.
To Barnes, that kind of attitude is simply what makes Sam Thomas be herself.
It is not because of the multiple winning seasons, or her two All-Pac-12 All-Academic awards, or the 8.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game in her career.
It is the fact that she has worked so hard for what she got. She came into the program with a positive attitude and a will to work. That is what makes Thomas a team player and a role model.
“Incredible kid, incredible person, incredible young woman, ” Barnes said. “She came to Arizona this introverted, shy kid that played the four (power forward) and wasn’t heavily recruited. She left this monster defensive player and stellar academically. Just a role model in every sense of the word. That’s what a student-athlete is: It is Sam, and she gave so much to this program.
“As a coach, the special things, not only graduating and getting her degree, but for her, everything is such high class and character. She represented our school so well in front of Congress (about NIL opportunities for student-athletes), things she wouldn’t have been able to do her freshman year. So she grew in the program and she worked hard. She was extremely coachable. She was a leader. Since her freshman year, she was a team captain. There isn’t anything she hasn’t done to the best of her ability and she’s always represented the program and the university in the best manner possible.”