January 21, 2010 7:10:00 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
Bianca Thomas wants the basketball in her hands, even if it is against a professional.
Thomas'' confidence that she can deliver for the University of Mississippi women''s basketball team stems in part from the work she does daily in practice against former Rebel and current WNBA standout Armintie Price.
In 2006-07, Price helped lead Ole Miss to the Elite Eight. Her dynamic play helped her join Cheryl Miller as the only two players in NCAA history to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists, and 400 steals.
Not only could Price fill it up, but she could terrorize opponents on the defensive end. The two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year is the program''s all-time steals leader with 403.
Thomas is using Price''s ability as a defender to make her better. That work paid dividends Sunday as Thomas scored a Tad Smith Coliseum record and career-high 42 points to lead Ole Miss to an 80-71 upset of then-No. 12 LSU.
Thomas will try to lead the Rebels (12-5, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) to another important victory at 7 tonight against Mississippi State (12-6, 3-2).
"Coming in every night I know it is going to be hard and very physical and that I usually am going to take a beating," said Thomas, a 5-foot-10 senior. "Armintie guarding me in practice helps me so much when I get in the game because it is a lot easier to face what teams are going to try to do to me or what I am going to have to do to get open."
Thomas said she has been playing against Price in practice since the beginning of the season. She said Price''s ability to get into the passing lanes has helped her read defenses better and understand the best ways -- either by fare or by curl -- to use the screens the Rebels rely on in their half-court offense.
"She is a very quick player, so I have to be smarter," Thomas said. "I am definitely not faster than her, and it is really, really hard because she makes me better each and every day."
Thomas, who earned SEC Player of the Week honors for her accomplishment, leads the league in scoring at 22.9 points per game, which is seventh in the nation. Against LSU, she scored 23 of her team''s final 29 points to help her join former Ole Miss associate head coach Peggie Gillom as the second player in school history to eclipse the 40-point mark. Gillom scored a school-record 45 points in 1978 against Tennessee.
Thomas is also second in the conference and fourth in the nation with 3.6 three-pointers made per game. She is eight 3-pointers shy of moving into second place all-time at Ole Miss, and 13 3-pointers short of setting a new single-season record.
Thomas said working against Price is just one way she has matured as a player. She said she used to be more of a one-dimensional player who relied on her 3-point shooting. Last season, she finished fourth in the league in scoring (15.8 ppg.) and sixth in 3-point field goal percentage (35.3 percent, 73 of 207).
This season, Thomas, who shot 41.1 percent in 2008-09, is shooting 41.6 percent from the field and already has hit 61 treys (37.7 percent from distance). She said she feels more confidence on offense because she now can take defenders off the dribble and create more shots.
It also helps when teammates like Shantell Black and Kayla Melson, who had a career-high 13 assists against LSU, get her the ball in the right places.
Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said Thomas has matured as a player and as a leader. She said she is blessed to have Thomas on her team.
"What I see most in Bianca is maturity, confidence and an urgency," Ladner said. "She knows and understands her time is short, and she has said all along that she wants leave a legacy."
Ladner said Thomas'' work ethic always has been tremendous and that things are just beginning to pay off this season. She, too, credits Price for helping Thomas become an even more dominating player on offense.
"(Armintie) is probably the best practice player/coach," Ladner said. "Armintie is so quick. She is cat quick and Bianca is not so what that does is it makes Bianca use a change of pace and it makes her work extremely hard to get open. When she plays other people on the collegiate level she already has played against the best, and that makes you better."
Thomas also feels she has blossomed as a leader. She knows she isn''t the most vocal player on the team, but she understands her teammates feed off her and that it is her responsibility to take and to hit big shots.
Fortunately, Thomas said players like Black, Melson, and Liz Robertson also have emerged and have helped the Rebels rebound from back-to-back losses to Ohio State and to Texas in December.
Tonight, Thomas will try to help Ole Miss do better than close against MSU. Last season, had 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting from 3-point range to help the Rebels build a lead in Starkville only to see the Lady Bulldogs rally for a 69-64 victory. She had only 13 points in the rematch in Oxford, a 66-50 MSU victory.
"We definitely know they swept us last year and we don''t want that to happen again this year," Thomas said. "They have a very good team, and we all know Alexis Rack (MSU''s leading scorer). We know it''s going to be a dogfight. We know we''re going to be in for a 40-minute battle."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.