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Thomas sets tone as team unites behind senior point guard

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Chris Thomas made his mark Tuesday night not once, but twice.

In black, permanent marker, Thomas scrawled the words “Just play” across the insides of his playing shoes in the locker room before the game.

Then he put Notre Dame on his back to upset undefeated Boston College.

With or without a marker, however, the senior point guard proved Tuesday the story of the 2004-05 Irish season will finish according to how he writes it.

“I thought Chris Thomas was fabulous orchestrating the game – leading, keeping us poised when they made runs,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He set the whole tone.”

Thomas said friends advised him he had to return to playing his own game after Saturday’s 60-57 loss to Syracuse. They said he wasn’t himself, and Thomas agreed.

So he decided against Boston College, he would take some friendly advice – and even tag it on his footwear.

“I didn’t have any baggage coming into this game from [the loss to] Syracuse,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even think. I just played.”

While issues such as the production of Notre Dame’s frontcourt have dominated discussion of the Irish ups and downs thus far, Thomas’ play has been the most consistent factor in gauging the team’s success.

Against Connecticut, Thomas scored or assisted on every Notre Dame basket from the 5:07 mark of the second half on. The Irish won 78-74.

Against Syracuse, he shot 2-for-12 from the field and could not lead the Irish past a late Orange full-court press, turning the ball over four times to his five assists. The Irish lost 60-57.

When Chris Thomas plays well, Notre Dame wins. And on Tuesday night, Thomas played his best game of the 2004-05 season up to this point.

Thomas shot 6-of-10 from the field and 3-of-5 from 3-point range, finishing with 19 points and coming one assist from a double-double the senior deserved.

“It was predictable that he would play like this tonight,” Brey said. “He’s a winner.”

Notre Dame led 49-38 with 13:58 remaining, but the Irish slowed their offense in an attempt to maintain their lead and slid back into Boston College’s game plan.

Not until Notre Dame came out of a 30-second timeout up 57-54 with 6:13 remaining did the team regain momentum – and that was thanks to Thomas.

The point guard hit Colin Falls (23 points) for a 3-pointer, stripped Eagles’ guard Jermaine Watson, finished the lay-up and then stole the ball from Boston College forward Craig Smith.

When Thomas knocked the ball loose, Smith tried to retrieve it. But Thomas ripped the ball from the floor and shook his head at the Eagles’ forward.

“No, that’s mine,” the headshake seemed to say. The ball and the game were his.

Later, as Chris Quinn and Jordan Cornette both missed the front ends of one-and-one opportunities to seal the victory, Thomas stepped up and made four straight free throws.

“It’s up to me to play fearless, play with a level head and play with a smile on my face,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ coach knows self-inflicted pressure is nothing new to the seasoned senior.

“He wanted that one in the Carrier Dome bad, and he was really disappointed we didn’t get it,” Brey said. “Chris is the kind of guy that blames himself. Chris takes too much responsibility. One of the things I want him to do is just enjoy playing and smile, and not play with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and know that he has other guys out there with him that have got his back.

Thomas had Falls helping him on the scoring end Tuesday, and the sophomore sharpshooter will receive most of the initial mention as Irish fans praise individual efforts in the Notre Dame upset.

“The [fans] probably would take [Falls’] miss over me shooting every day,” Thomas said, smiling.

He knows he is highly criticized. Since he arrived his freshman year, Thomas has experienced nothing but close media attention.

But with the all-important smile, the all-purpose player turned point guard leader was able to do his ultimate job Tuesday, committing no turnovers.

The result: No. 4 Boston College fell in the Joyce Center and became – as the fans chanted so frequently before, during and after the game – “20-and-1”.

Because Thomas discovered all he had to do was “just play.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu.