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Thomas’ calm demeanor helps Irish top UConn

Andrew Soukup | Tuesday, February 10, 2004

There were no boos for Chris Thomas Monday night.Just polite applause when the public address announcer told the Joyce Center crowd Thomas had broken the school record for career assists midway through his third year of college basketball.Just gasps of dismay followed by yells of disbelief when Thomas buried basket after basket with the shot clock winding down.Just a deafening roar when the junior guard left his hand hanging in the air nanoseconds after he hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to break a 69-69 tie.But most telling of all, Thomas just received quiet praise from his head coach for the calm way he directed Notre Dame’s thrilling 80-74 upset of No. 5 Connecticut.”When Thomas’ demeanor is like it was tonight, we can play with anybody,” Brey said. “But he struggled a little bit, he hadn’t shot well. If he doubts, we kind of doubt a little bit. “As a matter of fact, if he doubts, I doubt. Because he’s very important to us.”There was no doubting Thomas – or the rest of the Irish – Monday night as they played arguably their best game of the season. For a Notre Dame team that had come so close, yet never beaten, top-ranked teams, Monday’s efforts showcased a team sick of losing and a player sick of being criticized.”This past summer has made me more patient and play with a lot more poise,” said Thomas, who helped the Irish commit zero – yes, zero – turnovers in the second half. “It took me 20 games to show it, but at least I’m showing it now.”Those who claim Notre Dame would be better without Thomas than with him are sadly mistaken. When Thomas struggles, as he has most of the season, Notre Dame struggles as well. But when Thomas is on fire, as he was against the Huskies, Notre Dame can compete with and beat virtually every team it plays.”Chris is capable of 30 every night,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun shrugged after the game.He’s also capable of struggling, as Notre Dame fans have seen all too well. Before Monday’s 31-point, 60-percent-from-3-point-range effort, Thomas was only shooting a meager 30 percent from behind the arc.He could have blamed his bum knee, but he didn’t. He could have lashed out at the fans who booed him in Notre Dame’s win against Miami two weeks ago, but he didn’t. He went to the gym, worked on his shot, and rallied the Irish when they needed it most.”We’ve been hearing that Chris Quinn and I can never play good together on the same night,” Thomas said. “We figured this was our last stand, and we couldn’t take it any more.”Notre Dame entered Monday’s game believing Francis wasn’t going to play, something Brey thought made the rest of the Irish focus more. But they couldn’t have expected Chris Quinn to tumble to the Joyce Center in pain midway through the second half.But as hard as Thomas and Torrian Jones watched Quinn writhe in pain on the floor, they refused to back down.Want examples of Notre Dame’s composure? There are many.In the first half, Emeka Okafor swatted Rick Cornett’s shot against the backboard and earned a buzz of boos from fans who thought it was goaltending. On the sideline, Brey looked as if a vein in his head was about to burst as he angrily danced in front of Notre Dame’s bench.But in a strange ironic twist – and Monday night was filled with them – the coach who preached composure all year lost his while the players on the floor rallied.Even as the crowd booed, Jones stole the ball and threw it back to Thomas at midcourt. The crowd was still booing the missed call when Thomas drove into the lane and passed to Quinn, who nailed a 3-pointer to draw the Irish to 28-27.”That just showed right there us growing up and maturing,” Jones said. “Earlier, we’d be whining at the refs and complaining about the call instead attacking after the ball. Tonight we did what we have to do, we hit every big play, got every loose ball, did everything we have to do to get the ‘W’.”Like when Notre Dame got a defensive stop, passed to Thomas, who simply stood and let the other nine players on the court sprint up in transition. Or when the Irish answered Connecticut down the stretch shot for shot and basket for basket.This was the Notre Dame team Irish players had been trying to convince reporters existed during a stretch when the Irish had lost six of their last eight. This was a Notre Dame team that exuded the confident attitude of the top-ranked team it was supposed to be all season long.Fans who left the Joyce Center scratching their heads had to be wondering two things. First, why did this team show up tonight? And second, where was this team all season long?”If I could pick any part of my life, it feels like I’m hitting puberty right now,” Jones said. “You understand what you have to do and what is important in the game. If we start building on tonight’s points of emphasis, we’ll be ready right now.”Jones may be the team’s most vocal player; Quinn may be the team’s most efficient. Francis might be Notre Dame’s best big man, Cornette may be the team’s most versatile and Timmerman’s might be the team’s toughest.But as Brey said of Thomas after the game, “He is our program.”And after Monday’s performance, nobody doubted either of them.