PHOENIX — Sam Thomas was surrounded by about 15 people, many of them kids, all in Arizona garb, talking and laughing with her as if she was part of their families. After a few minutes, they asked for photos with her and autographs.
The Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix felt like McKale Center after a game.
That was until a Phoenix Mercury security staff member approached them with two other security guards and said, “Folks, you have to walk up the stairs and leave the arena now.”
The photos and autographs continued.
“Folks …,” the bewildered security member said before acknowledging what Thomas meant to this crowd.
Thomas was unfazed by it all. She did not take the cue to tell the group that it was time to go. She engaged further. Smiled more.
Any bystander would have felt like telling the security guard, “Hey, this is the WNBA. This game needs this. Come on. Do you know how precious this is for Sam Thomas and these fans? Do you know what this means to Arizona’s program? To Tucson?”
Thomas played four minutes in Phoenix’s 90-88 victory over Atlanta and her former Arizona teammate Aari McDonald on Friday night.
In the grand scope of Arizona women’s basketball and WNBA playing experience, Thomas’ time on the court and the career-high 39 minutes Friday from McDonald in her first start of this season were indeed precious.
“It’s crazy,” Thomas said. “Every day I’m just so grateful and so thankful that I’m here.”
Only seven former Wildcats have played in a WNBA regular-season game since the league started in 1996. Just three of them have played at least 10 games in a career, including McDonald, a second-year pro who played in her 43rd game Friday night.
She is already second among former Arizona players in career WNBA games, behind Adia Barnes’ 132 from 1998 to 2004.
With one more game, Thomas can match the nine played by Ify Ibekwe (brief experiences in 2011 and 2017) for fourth-most among Arizona players in the WNBA.
“This is just the start,” said Thomas’s dad Derek, who attends most of his daughter’s games in Phoenix or when the Mercury visit Las Vegas, where the family resides. “It is surreal seeing her out there on the court with all of these WNBA veterans like Diana Taurasi, but we know she is out there because of the work she has put in.
“Now, it’s a matter of learning with each experience, and Sam is great at that.”
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Barnes is the most identifiable women’s basketball player in Arizona history leading Joan Bonvicini’s program to the Sweet 16 as a senior in 1997-98. The cornerstone players of the program now are McDonald and Thomas, two players she and lead assistant Salvo Coppa (Barnes’ husband) helped develop at Arizona.
Arizona Wildcats in the WNBAList of former Arizona players who have played regular-season and playoff games in the WNBA. The list is ordered by games played.
McDonald and Thomas are to Barnes what Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr meant to Lute Olson in the development of the men’s program into a national power.
“I think of greatness,” McDonald said when asked what she thinks of what she and Thomas mean to Arizona. “I think of all the hard work that Sam and I put in, everything we did to bring the Arizona program to what it is now.
“To see that pay off and to see us in the league (WNBA), that’s amazing. Big kudos to Coach Salvo and Adia.”
McDonald started for the fifth time in her WNBA career (trails only Barnes’ 51 for most among former Arizona players) after veteran Erica Wheeler suffered a left foot sprain in a game at Seattle on Tuesday.
How poetic @AariMcdonald's first start of the season in the state she knows best…
— Atlanta Dream (@AtlantaDream) June 11, 2022
McDonald overcame a first half in which she made only 1 of 6 shots from the field by making 5 of 6 in the second half and finishing with 13 points, four rebounds and four assists in Atlanta’s narrow loss. Her scoring output helped fuel a dramatic comeback by the Dream late in the fourth quarter after her team trailed by 14 points.
“It was nice to see her today have more of that leadership role with Wheeler being out and getting the start at point guard,” Thomas said. “I think she did a really good job.”
Thomas played only in the first half and was not matched against McDonald like she was when the Dream defeated Phoenix 81-54 on May 29 at Atlanta.
When Thomas was announced into the game Friday, a large roar was heard from many of the Arizona fans in attendance.
“I knew those were my Tucson people,” Thomas said. “It was especially extra loud, so it’s nice to get that welcoming.”
Aari McDonald was not quite 6 years old when Diana Taurasi was rookie in the WNBA in 2004. McDonald guarding her tonight 18 years later here at the Footprint Center. pic.twitter.com/JdOghsx925
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) June 11, 2022
McDonald also received a loud ovation when she was introduced as a starter. Her teammates circled around her on the court as she danced in the middle of them.
The degree of acceptance Atlanta has for McDonald is immeasurable because of her effort.
First-year Atlanta coach Tanisha Wright keeps close track of hustle stats, including in practice. McDonald is one of the team leaders in deflections. Monique Billings said after a recent game that McDonald is “cooking” in that regard.
McDonald played all but one minute against Phoenix, sitting briefly midway through the second quarter.
“She’s just figuring it out,” Wright said. “She’s been doing a great job for us utilizing her skill set to make herself better and this team.”
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) June 11, 2022
McDonald mentioned one of the most challenging aspects of adapting to the WNBA is the length of the players, especially as she tries to make drives to the basket. Instead of approaching one 6-foot-4 player like she did in college, she may come across two players with similar size and a forward nearby with athleticism.
The most rewarding part?
“My teammates,” McDonald said. “This year, I’m surrounded by amazing players, so they make my job easier and they make me more confident in myself. I’m not afraid to speak up.”
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Thomas and McDonald exchanged a hug and some laughs before Friday’s game in only what was the second time on the same court together since the magical run to the NCAA title game at San Antonio in 2020-21.
The times they have shared in the gym are numerous, often practicing against each other since McDonald transferred from Washington in 2017-18 (Thomas’ freshman year). That time together has made the experience of facing each other in the WNBA more manageable.
“I basically know all her moves,” Thomas said. “I’ve been watching her for a long time. Me and her would do the same workouts with Salvo. Luckily, she didn’t pull any of those moves on me but she did get some my teammates, so just really happy for her.”
McDonald did not fret getting matched with Thomas two weeks ago in Atlanta. She said that “it was fun.”
“I’m so excited for Sam and I told her this from the beginning, when I saw her name for the training camp,” McDonald said. “It’s just so exciting to see two Wildcat players on the same court. It will pave a new way for the future players.”
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Thomas earned her spot on Phoenix’s 12-player roster after auditioning for a week following her signing as a non-drafted free agent in April.
Having Thomas part of the roster is not meant to sell tickets from Tucson. Every spot is coveted especially with All-Star center Brittney Griner in a Russian prison for 114 days now for alleged possession of hashish oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport when she was trying to return to the U.S. after playing professionally there over the winter and spring.
Still seems surreal that Sam Thomas was in an Arizona huddle like this only three months ago and now she is in one with Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles with the Mercury. pic.twitter.com/anTOqE5hvl
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) June 11, 2022
First-year Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard needs reliable players to set the foundation for her vision of winning basketball with the Mercury with Griner out and Diana Taurasi at the twilight of her career, in her 19th season in the WNBA.
Nygaard said she is impressed the most with how Thomas conducts herself around the coaches and her veteran teammates.
“She acts like an old pro in terms of always being prepared,” Nygaard said. “She brings the best version of herself everyday. She has a great work ethic. She always brings a little bit extra.
“She asks great questions. She does all those things and we’re happy she is a part of this team.”
— Derek Thomas,NBCT (@coachDThomas84) June 11, 2022
Thomas has embraced her role as a reserve who looks up to veterans after experiencing the reverse at Arizona.
She finished her Arizona career with 5,125 minutes played in 154 games — all starts. Those numbers rank first in program history. She also capped her career with a top-10 career ranking in program history in scoring, made 3-point field goals, 3-point field goal percentage, blocks and steals.
“Sam had a leadership role at Arizona,” Nygaard said. “When you have those leadership roles, it helps you be a better follower when you’re not a leader. Sam’s done a really good job with that.”
Thomas’ parents, Derek and Julie Thomas, greeted McDonald’s family after the game Friday by the court. They embraced, laughed and took pictures together.
At the other end of the court, Sam Thomas was greeted by another group of Arizona fans.
“There she is,” Derek said. “She always draws a crowd.”
The security guards could only stand nearby, watch and wait.
This moment meant too much.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.