Sam Thomas loves college — even the hard stuff.
So it was an easy decision to return to the UA for one more year. Thomas, a four-time team captain, announced her choice during Monday’s “Welcome Home” event held at Arizona Stadium.
She said: “I love you guys so much, it’s been a great journey with my teammates, and I’m going to come back for one more year.”
The extra year won’t count against Thomas’ college eligibility or against UA’s 15-person scholarship allotment. In December, the NCAA gave all student-athletes the opportunity to come back next year in exchange for playing through a pandemic.
Thomas said that there was “no doubt” she’d return when she heard of the offer four months ago.
But then … Thomas got a job offer from Nike, and was forced with a choice. Take the job now, or let it go.
“That was probably the hardest part,” she said. “I was deciding, ‘Should I stop basketball?’ It’s Nike — I’ve always wanted to work for Nike, I wore Nike my whole life. It was just the payoff for the internship and all the hard work that I’ve done. It was a great position for me as well.”
Thomas talked to those closest to her, including her parents and Wildcats coach Adia Barnes. Barnes told Thomas she’d save a spot for her.
Thomas also talked to those she had worked with last summer in that coveted Nike internship, including former UA softball standout Chelsea Suitos, who now works there.
“She really helped me just like saying, ‘Nike will always be there for me, but basketball’ … I can’t play my whole life. I’m going to get old at some point,” Thomas said.
Thomas told her fellow UA players at a team dinner. They kept her secret.
“They kept it from recruits. They kept it from … like, (athletic director) Dave Heeke didn’t know. He kept telling me, ‘Come back,’” Thomas said. “I’m so grateful they kept it, because I didn’t want to make it about me; it was my announcement to make. I didn’t want it to get out or anything. But I’m glad that it worked out the way that it did.”
Once Thomas made up her mind, nothing could change it — not even a run through the NCAA Tournament, culminating in the Wildcats’ national championship game loss to Stanford on Sunday.
Even if the Wildcats had won the title, “I was going to come back no matter what,” she said.
Thomas clearly thrives here. She graduated from the UA in three years with a 3.97 grade-point average, then enrolled in a master’s program in educational leadership. She still has a few classes and an internship to complete to finish the master’s.
Thomas earned the Pac-12’s Scholar Athlete of the Year award and the NCAA’s Elite90 honor for academics in all of Division I women’s basketball. She called it “a huge honor, especially going against people from Stanford.”
“I’ve never considered myself a smarty pants or anything like that. I just try and get my work done and get good grades,” she said. “To be honest with you, that award was incredible.”
Sunday’s loss hurt, of course.
“We had a historic run. It just wasn’t our time,” Thomas said.
But the Wildcats’ spirits weren’t down long. Thomas and her teammates were standing on the court in the moments following the game when a cheer rang out.
“You just started hearing, ‘U of A!,’” she said. “I didn’t even hear the music or like ‘Stanford Cardinal are your National Champs.’ I just heard everyone clapping and saying ‘U of A,’ and that’s all I heard in that moment.
“I think that’s what helped me contain my emotions. Just to wave to everyone and thank them for this whole ride. So many people drove, caught last-minute flights, canceled so many things, just so they could come to the game. I mean, the least we could do was just thank them.”
- During an appearance on “The Johnjay and Rich” podcast Wednesday, UA coach Adia Barnes was asked if she would consider coaching the men’s team. “Zero interest. Guys don’t listen to crap, no,” she said. “You tell a guy to go right, he’s going left, like, three times. No, they don’t listen.”
- Barnes went on to say that she had a good relationship with Sean Miller, who was let go on Wednesday morning. She said Miller talked to her during the Wildcats’ tournament run. “I’m sad because you developed these friendships with great people, but it is a business and it’s hard,” she said. “And our business is really cutthroat.”
- Barnes is giving her players time off until July, when their typical summer development session starts. Players who stay on campus can work on their own in the gyms and with coaches. Barnes had one request: Stay on top of your grades.
- Thomas plans to stay though the end of the semester — after she goes home to pick up her dog, Proxy. Her family in Las Vegas has been taking care of the dog since the Pac-12 Tournament began. Thomas also plans to get back into the gym with her dad, Derek, who is a coach, and her siblings Bailey, Jade and Shane, who all play basketball.
- Thomas said it was meaningful to see all the familiar faces in the stands at Arizona Stadium for Monday’s welcome-home celebration after not seeing them all season. She said the Wildcats were told about the celebration after the title game, and that the news lifted their spirits. “It was just nice to know that everyone still wanted to celebrate this historic run that we had,” Thomas said.