TUCSON – Close to 10,000 fans enjoyed Saturday’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament game between the University of Arizona and UNLV, but it was extra special for one family in particular.
Derek Thomas said watching the game was a “bittersweet moment” for him because his two younger daughters faced one another on college basketball’s biggest stage. Arizona senior Sam Thomas plays at forward for the Wildcats, while her younger sister, Jade, is a sophomore guard at UNLV.
No. 4 seed Arizona (21-7) defeated the 13th-seeded Lady Rebels 72-67 to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Shaina Pellington led all Wildcats and tied her season-high with 30 points while Cate Reese added 16.
“It was hard,” Derek Thomas said. “I was just trying not to make the other one mad that I’m cheering too much for this one or that one. So there were a few moments there where it was tough, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
The Thomas sisters, who played high school basketball at Centennial High School in Las Vegas, were not able to share the court together, but they cherished the head-to-head matchup and seeing each other play in person.
“It was super fun,” Sam Thomas said. “It’s just nice seeing (Jade) in her element. I haven’t been able to see a lot of her games in person, obviously, because we’re (playing) in the same season. But to have us both here at the McKale Center where I’ve been for so long, it’s like my second home. It was really nice.”
Despite only scoring two points in Arizona’s first-round victory, the defensive end is where Sam Thomas has provided the most value for the Wildcats. She ended with four of her team’s 11 steals against the Lady Rebels (26-7) and blocked two shots. Sam said she takes “pride” in her defense.
“That’s mostly what I care about,” she said. “That’s what we work on in practice. So if my offense isn’t flowing, then my defense will always be there.”
And indeed it has. Along with being the school’s leader in games started and played, the Las Vegas native also ranks second all-time in blocks (198) and is the Pac-12’s career leader in steals (262). Sam’s defensive efforts have garnered her selections to the Pac-12 All-Defense Team three years in a row (2020-22).
“The stuff she does, even when she’s not scoring, it’s very difficult to take Sam off the floor,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “Not too many guards in the country can block shots on a jump shooter or block shots the way that she does. In my opinion, she should have been Defensive Player of the Year (this season). In my opinion, she’s very, very underrated defensively, and she has been for her whole career here.”
So where does Sam get this lockdown defense from? It’s genetic, she said.
“We’re all a defensive family. That’s what we take our pride in,” she said. “My older sister (Bailey) was Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West, so really defense runs in our blood.”
That includes the youngest of the three sisters, Jade. She said Sam has taught her some things that have shaped her overall game.
“I’ve definitely learned to have fun. If you know Sam, you know she’s always smiling no matter where she is or what she’s doing,” Jade Thomas said. “So definitely have fun with it and also defense because defense isn’t hard if you actually put your mind to it. Sometimes, your shot might be off or you can’t get to the basket, but you can always rely on your defense.”
After starting the majority of last season, Jade Thomas has come off the bench more this year, averaging 12 minutes a game. She played briefly Saturday.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Arizona finished a regular season in which it led the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 56.8 points per game. However, UNLV put that statistic to the test on Saturday night.
The Lady Rebels scored 53 points through the first three quarters and led by five going into the fourth. But after a break in the action, the Wildcats’ defense stood tall while their offense heated up. Arizona outscored UNLV 24-14 and forced the Lady Rebels to commit 10 turnovers in the final period.
“I’m not happy that we gave UNLV 67 points,” Barnes said. “We won’t win like that against better opponents as we get deeper in the tournament. We have to be lock-down defenders. If we don’t score in spurts, then they can’t score.”
The Wildcats have a date with No. 5 seed North Carolina (24-6) Monday for a chance to play in the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels are coming off a first-round victory over No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin (28-5), in which they defeated the Lumberjacks 79-66.
“I don’t take North Carolina lightly. They’re coached well. They have some good players,” Barnes said. “So I think that’s going to be a good game, but right now we’re seeing across the country there’s a lot of upsets, so it is what it is. If we don’t show up and we don’t play and put together 40 minutes of basketball, we’re not going to win, and that’s the reality.”
Arizona’s second-round matchup with North Carolina tips off at 7 p.m. MST Monday at McKale Center.