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Thomas pours in 39 points as Irish defeat Billikens 77-66

Andrew Soukup | Tuesday, March 23, 2004

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Chris Thomas was jacked. His head coach was worried.Over an hour remained before tip-off and the Irish junior bounced around his team’s warm-up line, uncharacteristically throwing down pre-game dunks to the delight of the Irish crowd. Each display of athleticism simultaneously elicited a roar from those in the crowd and a grin from the player who just slammed the ball through the hoop.But Mike Brey noticed the unusual energy emanating from Thomas, and pulled him aside in the locker room. Calm down, Brey essentially told him, and let the game come to you.”How stupid was I,” the Irish coach said after the game where Thomas lit up Saint Louis for a career-high 39 points – 27 of which came in a second-half blitzkrieg that sent the Irish to the NIT’s third round.Then again, Brey should have seen how Thomas gazed around the Fort Wayne Coliseum, immersing himself in the roar the Irish received when they sauntered onto the court just prior to tip-off. Or he could have noticed the waves Thomas gave to dozens of family members who live in Fort Wayne, many of whom were watching Thomas play live in an Irish uniform for the first time.The Billikens, still in the locker room, didn’t see the confidence Thomas exuded either. Then again, by the way Thomas was able to score at will in Notre Dame’s 77-66 win Monday, it didn’t seem like they were on the court for most of the game, either. It wasn’t really fair that they happened to be the team standing on the tracks when the Thomas express roared past.Legendary among his teammates for the way he religiously pops in Michael Jordan highlights on road trips, Thomas carried the Irish past Saint Louis by stepping into the zone himself to turn in a spectacular performance which included 12-of-20 shooting from the field, including 6-of-11 from 3-point range, and zero turnovers.Sure, it took him a while to get rolling – but Brey thought it was because the Irish point guard was deliberately trying to take it slow. And when the Irish walked into the halftime locker room trailing 26-25, the entire arena collectively wondered when the Irish would get going.The Irish never really did get going. Just Thomas. But that was more than enoughSwitching between driving to the basket to draw fouls and draining long 3-pointers, Thomas single-handedly picked apart the Saint Louis defense by scoring half of Notre Dame’s second-half points. In a eight-minute span in the middle of the second-half, Thomas scored 21 of Notre Dame’s 30 points – including 11 straight – to turn a two-point deficit into a 15-point blowout.Just how good was Thomas? On the play where he scored his 33rd and 34th points to set a career high, Thomas started with the ball at the top of the key, dribbled three steps to his left, launched his body toward the Irish bench and the ball toward the Irish basketball hoop. Thomas ended up on his back on the floor. The ball ended up in the hoop.”We always talk about MJ moments,” Thomas said. “I had a little MJ moment when I hit that fadeaway shot. It kind of felt good.”In typical Thomas fashion after the game, he dismissed his impressive scoring performance in favor of criticizing his defense. And the last thing on his mind before he went to sleep Monday was the ninth free-throw attempt he shot – the one that rattled out of the rim and the one that would have made him the first Irish player in over a decade to score 40 points in 40 minutes.”That’s what I’m going to be thinking about all day,” he said with a half-chuckle about the only free-throw he missed in 10 attempts.It’s hard to tell who takes more criticism – Thomas, for a style of play that alternates between spectacular and sporadic, or Brey, for letting Thomas play with almost reckless abandon. But nights like Monday show Thomas’ true greatness as a basketball player, where he simply takes his team in his hands, interweaving Notre Dame’s destiny with his own. And when Thomas makes the kinds of shots he did against Saint Louis, defenders, fans and teammates can only shake their heads in disbelief.”Everybody wants me to coach him like Jimmy Chitwood. He’s not Jimmy Chitwood, he’s a unique talent,” Brey said, evoking images of Hoosiers in a basketball-starved state where only the Irish are playing. “There’s an example of a guy who has to have some freedom to play, the textbook stuff doesn’t always go with this young man.”By the time Brey pulled Thomas from the game with 45.6 seconds to a standing ovation, the Irish point guard had all but ensured the Irish would move one win from making the NIT’s Final Four. “That,” Brey said, “has to be one of the great performances he has ever turned in an Irish uniform.”And to think, his career isn’t over yet.

The views of this column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup @nd.edu.