NCAA Tournament: Thomas provides Duke with energy

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 20, 2009

By Bret Strelow
GREENSBORO ó Duke entered halftime of its NCAA tournament opener with a double-digit lead, but Lance Thomas was in a bad mood.
Binghamton’s Tiki Mayben had just hit a 3-pointer over Thomas, who didn’t want the second half to end the way it started.
“It fired me up because I knew I can defend a lot better,” Thomas said. “The fire I felt, I spread it throughout the team in the locker room. People fed off it, and I felt that was a big contributor to the first four minutes of the second half.”
Duke used a 17-2 run to pull away for an 86-62 victory and advance to a second-round matchup with Texas (23-11). Tonight’s opening tip is scheduled for 8:15 p.m.
Thomas made all five of his field-goal attempts and scored 14 points Thursday, but the Blue Devils (29-6) rely on him more for defense, rebounding and leadership.
“If I have the opportunity to score, I do care about it, but I’m not a guy that’s worried about getting a certain number of shots,” Thomas said. “Whatever play is in front of me, I’ll make it.”
Texas will have a size advantage over Duke with 6-foot-10, 298-pound center Dexter Pittman (10.2 points) on the floor. Damion Jones (15.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) is another interior weapon, and guard A.J. Abrams averages a team-leading 16.6 points. He hit eight 3-pointers and scored 30 points in a first-round win over Minnesota.
Thomas, a 6-8 junior, will likely guard Pittman, Jones and Abrams at some point tonight.
The athleticism of Thomas and David McClure allows Duke to switch on ball screens and survive with post players defending guards.
“Lance gives us terrific versatility defensively, and he’s one of the best leaders on this team,” said assistant Steve Wojciechowski, who coaches Duke’s big men. “He’s an emotional sparkplug for our team. He really contributes in a lot of ways, and at times him putting up numbers is gravy.”
The most visible outburst occurred in a blowout loss.
ESPN cameras caught Thomas berating his teammates during a timeout in a 74-47 setback at Clemson. He said his message was received in a positive manner.
“I didn’t like the fact I didn’t see my teammates competing, and I did everything in my power to turn it around,” Thomas said. “If we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out swinging.
“Guys see me fired up, it flips a switch for them. It’s good that people respect me enough that they can feed off what I bring.”
On Thursday, it was more than intangibles.
Thomas was one of six Duke players to score in double figures, a mark he had reached only twice in the previous 27 games.
His offensive rebound on the first possession of the second half set up a 3-pointer by Jon Scheyer, and Thomas converted two dunks toward the end of the decisive run.
Scheyer said Thomas’ halftime explosion inspired the Blue Devils.
“It gets you ready to play because you don’t want to let him down,” Scheyer said. “You want to be right there with him getting stops.
“He’s the backbone of our defense, always talking, and you want to always listen to him. You can always hear him on the court, which is a big thing.”