- Chad Millman
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SAN ANTONIO -- James Thomas missed a shot from the baseline. He missed from underneath the basket. He missed a baby hook from five feet out, then another 10-foot jumper rolled around the rim like it was circling a drain but it didn't fall.
In the first half Friday night against Connecticut, Thomas took six shots. Thomas missed six shots.
It didn't matter. All that mattered was Thomas kept shooting. Hit or miss, it meant Connecticut center Emeka Okafor was working. And late in a game Texas won 82-78, that would make all the difference.
"Against a guy like James, who is so active, you can see Emeka getting agitated," said Texas forward Jason Klotz.
All season long, Longhorns coach Rick Barnes had pushed his junior center to be more aggressive offensively. To look for his shot more and worry about the rebounds he hordes like candy a little bit less. The double-double he averaged was good. But his 11 points a game, said Barnes, could easily be 17 points.
Problem is, Thomas would rather shoot himself in the foot than shoot the basketball. Hours before the game, he'll sit in the Longhorn locker room, "AC/DC Live" pumping through his headphones, getting himself angry. His game is defense. Rebounding. Creating such a nuisance of his 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame that he makes the lane his own dark alley where no one else wants to go.
Not even his teammates.
"The first day I met him, my freshman year, he said to me, 'I don't care about offense, all I care about is rebounding,'" said sophomore guard Sydmill Harris. "I didn't realize how serious he was until he gave me a concussion in my first game because we were going for the same rebound."
"That's what I feed off of," said Thomas. "My team needs me to go out there and play defense and rebound, that is my identity."
Thomas is the perfect counterbalance to the wispy T.J. Ford, the quake to Ford's shimmee and shake. With UConn up 18-17 in the first half, it was Ford's two free throws that gave Texas the lead. Then it was Ford's perfect pass from the wing to a streaking Brian Boddicker for a layup that pushed the lead to 21-18. Then another on-target pass from Ford to Brandon Mouton -- who led all scorers with 27 -- as Mouton found a spot on the wing coming off a screen for a 3-pointer, made it 24-18.
When UConn cut it to four, it was Ford's no-look bounce pass-after a rebound by Thomas -- which led to a Royal Ivey layup that put the Horns back up by six. UConn wouldn't see the lead again until there were a little more than five minutes left in the game.
"I thought that was the key to the game," said Longhorns coach Rick Barnes. "When they took the lead, we didn't flinch. We kept playing. We got done what we needed to get done."
That meant Thomas did what he always does. Rebound. Defense. Make the lane his home.
While Okafor was tiring, Thomas was getting stronger. When Okafor turned left, Thomas was in his face. When Okafor tried to face the basket, he was staring at Thomas' armpits.
Thomas finished with 15 rebounds and 13 points (on just 2-of-9 shooting), but he badgered Okafor into missing a layup with two minutes and the game tied at 76. Of course, he grabbed the rebound. He was fouled. At the other end of the floor he lined up for two free throws.
Those shots, he didn't miss.
Chad Millman is a frequent contributor to ESPN The Magazine.