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Defensive specialist Sam Thomas on Arizona's performance, the nerves that come with being No. 6 — and her dog
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Defensive specialist Sam Thomas on Arizona's performance, the nerves that come with being No. 6 — and her dog

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Wildcats forward Sam Thomas and NAU guard Miki’ala Maio watch as the ball is passed inbounds during the third quarter of the teams’ season opener last month.

Sam Thomas isn’t one to focus on her own stats. She just goes out and does her best.

That might explain why Arizona’s senior forward always seems to be in the right place at the right time to make big plays and spark her teammates.

Thomas would never have known she had more than five deflections against both USC and UCLA, for example, if not for the big board in the Wildcats’ locker room that keeps track of “passion plays.” She probably doesn’t know that she has 16 deflections so far this season.

And when told of her history against the Wildcats’ next two opponents, Thomas was surprised.

The last time Arizona played Colorado, Thomas finished with five blocks and two steals. Against Utah, she had 31 points and two blocks while Aari McDonald was out with an injury. Every time she’s faced these teams in her UA career, she’s stuffed the stat sheet.

“I didn’t actually know that — I feel like I always struggle against Colorado (and) Utah,” Thomas said. “That’s good to know. No, I didn’t even realize it, but I mean, shoot, hopefully I can keep it up.”

The Star talked to Thomas via Zoom as the sixth-ranked Wildcats prepared for their upcoming road trip. They play at Colorado on Friday and in Utah on Sunday:

What is it like to be in this moment with the program — reaching some of your goals, like beating teams like UCLA and ASU consistently — and being a top team?

A: “It’s definitely been a rewarding feeling being here. Everyone talks about like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get better every year.’ But to actually feel it and live it and really get better every year. It’s been such a nice feeling. Only winning six games, then next year we win the WNIT. And the next year after that, obviously, COVID happened, but we would have been able to go to the NCAA Tournament. … And then this year, like you said, now we’re a top-10 team, we have a possibility to be a top-5 team. We are beating UCLA, the USCs. It’s just honestly been very nice.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking to look back and be like ‘Wow! We’re really like one of these teams.’ Obviously, (I’m) not comparing us to UConn, who has been amazing for the past, like, 20 to 30 years. But it’s nice to know that we’re going in that direction — where we can keep the program up as a top-25, top-10 team for years to come.”

You mentioned nerves. The program doesn’t focus on the rankings — especially not now — but do you feel a little pressure?

A: “Honestly, the most nerve-wracking part is being No. 6 right now, and obviously as Coach Adia (Barnes) mentioned — and I agree with her — we’re not that No. 6 team right now. And I’m not saying we won’t get there. But it’s just because COVID happens, we don’t have the whole summer to prepare. And then we didn’t have our nonconference games to help prepare us a little bit. We’re using these Pac-12 games … to try and like reform and rebuild at the same time. These aren’t like easy games. It’s not like, ‘Oh, like let’s mix and match.’ We have to be on our ‘A’ game basically every game. ...

“I think the most nerve-wracking part is knowing we are No. 6 (and that) everyone who’s lower than us or behind us is going to be like, ‘Oh, we’re the underdogs. There’s nothing to lose when we play Arizona, you are No. 6.’ But in our heads, we’re thinking every game is like an even match because we honestly don’t know how good we are right now. We’re trying to figure that out. Everyone else is like, ‘Oh, No. 6 Arizona; let’s go get them like we have nothing to lose’ — while we’re taking every game like it’s the No. 1 team in the country. We have to do everything right.”

Are you are still enjoying every moment, even though there is pressure?

A: “One hundred percent. … The nerves are just a little part. We always have fun.”

Coach Adia always says that you are the hardest player to take off the court. You impact the team in so many ways. Looking at your defense, why are you so consistent?

A: “Honestly, I think it’s my long arms (laughing). I think it’s because I talk a lot on defense. I am able to help when someone like Lauren (Ware) comes in, who is a freshman who can be flustered, but Lauren obviously talks a lot, too. I love playing with her. I look out for my teammates on defense — like how on offense you look for the hot hand. On defense, I direct my teammates and try to be one step ahead of the offense.

“I think being comfortable on defense is one of the biggest things Coach Adia always talks about. … I just try and make sure my teammates have that trust with me on defense that they’ll go as hard as they can, because they know I’m going to have their back no matter what.”

Last year, you made the All-Pac-12 Defensive Team. How does it feel to know others recognize what you do on defense?

A: “It definitely felt nice, because I’m not necessarily the type of defender … like Aari, who is really fast — she’s going to put a bunch of ball pressure on you. … I’m more playing the packline, trying to tip, block, all that kind of stuff — just being in the right place. It’s nice to know that like even though I’m not as aggressive and more laid back a little bit on defense, people still recognize that I do have good defense; I’m not just chilling there.”

Now for the fun stuff. How many dogs do the Wildcats have?

A: “We have a lot, actually. Me, Aari, Bendu (Yeaney), Lakin (Gardner), and Semaj (Smith), five of us have dogs. … Coach Jackie (Nared Hairston) has two, and Coach Tamisha (Augustin) has two. We’re waiting for Coach Adia and Coach Salvo (Coppa) to get one. That’s probably not going to happen right now.”

Your dog, Proxy, is curled up and sleeping on your bed right now. Any updates?

A: “She’s starting to wake up at like four o’clock now to go to bathroom. Usually, she was nice to me and let me go at like 7 a.m. But it was nice, because then I just go get COVID-tested right after. But now she wants to wake me up at 4 a.m. every day. We’re going to try and break that habit. … It’s not fun, not fun at all.”

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