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Originally published March 12, 2011 at 8:08 PM | Page modified March 13, 2011 at 9:59 PM

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Steve Kelley

Isaiah Thomas shows heart of a champion

Winning basket just part of brilliant performance for UW's floor leader in Pac-10 tournament title game

Seattle Times staff columnist

LOS ANGELES — Exhaustion had sucked the air out of Isaiah Thomas' lungs and chiseled the energy out of his legs. He had played every minute of this remarkable basketball game and almost every minute of the championship tournament.

He was so gassed that late in the game Thomas told his teammate, center Matthew Bryan-Amaning, during a timeout, "Hey, I'm tired, man. When I pass the ball in to you, shoot it. Don't pass it back to me."

For months, Thomas had tried to carry this team. Through his late-season slump, he kept pushing himself, kept pushing his teammates.

And now another game was in his hands. The Huskies were resting on his weary shoulders.

"Playing all 45 minutes, not coming out of the game, on the third day of a tournament?" Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "That's a warrior. That's a great performance. That's a great tournament."

Warriors don't believe in fatigue. Warriors find strength in the moment. They find fuel that fits the occasion.

In overtime, tied with Arizona at 75, his trey-raining teammates spread along the three-point arc just in case, Thomas dribbled down the final 19 seconds as relaxed as if he were back on the playgrounds in Tacoma.

The game was on him.

At the end of this remarkable Saturday afternoon, Thomas, the most remarkable player on the floor, created just enough space with a lethal crossover dribble that practically shattered MoMo Jones' ankles, lifted into the air 18 feet from the orange rim and hit the coolest jump shot of his life.

The horn sounded with the ball in the air and the soft swish rippled all the way north to Seattle.

"The dude's a monster," Washington's unsung hero, Darnell Gant, said of Thomas. "He's got the heart of a lion. He's got that killer mentality. He's one of my best friends, and I'll go down with him until the wheels fall off."

After a wobbly few weeks, Washington (23-10) is rolling again as it heads into the NCAA tournament.

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And Thomas is back, breaking ankles and breaking hearts. The Pac-10 tournament's Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row, he scored 28 points and dealt seven assists in another virtuoso performance that was the perfect ending to a near-perfect weekend.

Washington won its conference tournament for the second year in a row, beating Arizona 77-75 in an overtime game that was almost too good to end.

And the smallest player on the floor was the biggest.

"He's a hell of a player," Bryan-Amaning said. "He gets a lot of flak because of his height, and he's dealt with it all his life. When a guy's in a zone, he's in a zone. When he's in that mode you just kind of go out and let him play. I know that's what coach has to let him do sometimes."

If, as Romar said, Thomas' game Thursday against Washington State was "a game for the ages," this one was a game for the time capsule. Bubble-wrap it, soak it in preservatives and it still will look special a century from now.

"Whatever he did on Thursday, he topped it Saturday, because of the magnitude of the game," Romar said.

This was the cocky Thomas wanting the ball in his hands, working in the middle of the floor, driving hard to the basket or pulling up for a jumper. This was the herky-jerky Thomas, flashing a crossover as dizzying as anybody since Tim Hardaway, yo-yoing a defender until he gets open.

Thomas will be remembered for that last shot. His teammates storming the floor to pile on top of him, before lifting all 5 feet 9 of him onto their shoulders and pointing him toward the purple-shirted section sitting at midcourt.

But as syrupy sweet as that last shot was, just as important were the passes Thomas made to two cold-blooded freshmen at the end of regulation.

First he drove into the teeth of the Wildcats' defense and found Terrence Ross for a three that cut the Arizona lead to 66-65 with 17.2 seconds left. Then he drove and dished to C.J. Wilcox, whose left-corner three-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining, sent the game into overtime.

With the whole country watching, getting to see him at his CBS best, Thomas played as if he were made for March.

"He's an animal. He's like a different breed," Wilcox said. "He does whatever we need to help his team win. He wasn't going to let us go out like that. He's just amazing."

Even in his last gasp; even with the clock ticking down and the energy seeping from his legs, Isaiah Thomas found another day, another way to be amazing.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Hot shot
Isaiah Thomas' top scoring games this season:
Pts Opponent Result Date
28 vs. Arizona W, 77-75 (OT) Saturday
27 at California W, 92-71 Jan. 16
24 vs. Nevada W, 90-60 Dec. 22
23 vs. California W, 109-77 Feb. 10

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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