Linda Robertson

Jessica Thomas leads UM women into NCAA Tournament

Miami's Jessica Thomas (3) reacts after making a basket against Florida State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2016.
Miami's Jessica Thomas (3) reacts after making a basket against Florida State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2016. AP

Ask University of Miami point guard Jessica Thomas why she doesn’t get flustered and she’ll talk about her family. Ask her where she got her competitive edge and she’ll talk about her family.

Thomas grew up in a household where winning was paramount. Whether it was Monopoly, Scrabble, touch football, pickup basketball or grades at school, Thomas got no favors from her three older brothers or her parents.

But golf was the ultimate test.

“Every Sunday we’d have the Thomas family tournament at the Ironwood golf course in Gainesville,” she said. “This is serious golf because we are really good.”

So good that Thomas finished fourth in the Class 7A high school tournament as a senior and contemplated pursuing a pro golf career before accepting a scholarship to play basketball at UM.

“I just had a basketball Jones and would rather pick up a basketball than a golf club,” she said. “I knew in my heart I wanted to come to play for Katie Meier at Miami.”

Thomas’ choice is paying off. How she performs will be critical to UM’s success in the NCAA Tournament, starting Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the first round against South Dakota State at Maples Pavilion on the Stanford campus.

The crafty Jackrabbits can shoot three-pointers and have some unorthodox tendencies, which gives the No. 12 seed upset potential.

The Hurricanes, the No. 5 seed and ranked 19th in the nation, watched film of their opponent’s point guard, Macy Miller, who played for perhaps one of the best nicknamed teams in high school, the Mitchell Kernels.

“Do they live and die by the three-pointer? A little bit,” Meier said. “Do they like to post up their guards? Yes, they can play small. We have to disrupt their rhythm.”

Thomas, who helped propel UM to a 74-56 victory over Florida State in the ACC tournament, will have her hands full.

If the Hurricanes advance, they would likely meet Stanford on Monday in what would be a home game for the Cardinal.

“If we win one, we’ll win two,” Meier told her players before their trip west.

Confidence is not lacking on a team that is peaking with an attacking identity that is causing heads to turn.

“I’m proud there is a thing called Miami basketball,” Meier said. “We give a lot of green lights.”

Much of that style flows from the 5-6 Thomas, who has come into her own as an aggressive leader, transforming her assist-to-turnover ratio from 1-to-2 as an underclassman to 2-to-1 as a junior. She averages 11.9 points and 3.7 assists in 31.5 minutes per game.

She developed her on-court demeanor by looking up to her brothers, especially the eldest, Lamar, who was no shrinking violet during his years as the top wide receiver for UM from 1989 to 1992, which included the 1991 national championship, and eight years in the NFL.

“We call ourselves the bookends, because he was the first born and I’m the last,” Thomas said.

“We are similar in our mind-set, the way we carry our swag. When I gave a speech during the Selection Show, somebody said I reminded them of Lamar. People call us cocky. It’s really confidence because we work so hard.”

Lamar, 46, is the wide receivers coach at Kentucky and hoping hard that UM moves on to the NCAA Sweet 16 in Lexington. He always knew his little sister would excel because of the number of times he called home at 10 or 11 p.m. only to hear that she was at the gym.

“When I first met Coach Meier, I told her to recruit Jessica, and she got all excited, and said she’d have to trust me because Jessica was only going into eighth grade,” Lamar said.

Yet Thomas’ first love was golf. Parents Tara and Larone are excellent players. Brother Eric, formerly a college and minor-league pitcher, is a teaching pro at Ironwood.

Basketball became her passion.

“It hurt my parents but I found there was so much more to the game — film analysis, ball-handling, lifting weights, understanding where your teammates need to be,” she said. “You can talk, clap, laugh and yell. In golf it’s the total opposite.”

She played both sports at Buchholz High, winner of the basketball state title her senior year, when she was also named Scholar-Athlete of the year — which led to some trash talking at the Thomas family golf tournament.

“We made sure she stayed on the golf team because we felt that course management would teach her court management,” Lamar said. “I said, ‘If you can visualize the game plan, you and Coach Meier can be one.’ 

The evolution of the rapport between point guard and coach has been one of the most satisfying of Meier’s career.

“She’s got such a special motor and her fuel is diesel, whereas mine is unleaded,” Meier said.

Meier is not a totalitarian coach. She invites questioning and creativity. Thomas isn’t afraid to speak up. She even calls Meier by her nickname, Catfish.

“She’s earned the right to call me that,” Meier said. “She’ll challenge me more than anyone on the team. In a system this aggressive, the coach and point guard have to talk a lot. We watch a lot of film together. I’m proud to see the leader she’s become.”

Thomas plays golf occasionally to relax, noting how Steph Curry scored 43 in one game after playing 36 holes. But for now, she and the Hurricanes are swept up in March Madness.

“It’s important to make the big shots and be the coach on the floor,” she said. “If my team needs an answer, I’ve got to give it.”

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