BY Bob Sherwin 08:36PM 03/12/2011

Thomas’ 19-second path to destiny

No need for timeout; clear-headed Thomas was ready to win Pac-10 tourney

Isaiah Thomas celebrates after hitting the game-winning shot against Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament / Getty Images

LOS ANGELES – Isaiah Thomas entered the Pac-10 Tournament struggling with his shot and his confidence. He blamed it on thinking too much, He wanted to get back to instincts and reactions.

With 19 seconds left in what turned into the Washington Huskies’ sensational 77-75 overtime victory over Arizona, his mind flooded with random thoughts, not the least of which was the game situation.

The score was tied at 75. He played all 45 minutes of this game and 78 of the 80 minutes in the previous two games. The Wildcats had momentum after a Kevin Parrom three-pointer tied it.

Three minutes earlier in OT, Matthew Bryan-Amaning fouled out. That  opened the lane further for Arizona’s Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams, who already had 24 points, 11 rebounds and just two fouls.

“I know you want to be in there. I know you care,” Thomas told MBA as he departed. “I got your back.”

But the junior point guard was exhausted. His team was tired, now short-handed and vulnerable. He understood that it simply had to end here because the Huskies, already without the suspended Venoy Overton, wouldn’t have the gas for a second overtime.

He told his teammates during a timeout down the stretch, “I’m tired. I’m not worried about scoring. When you get the ball, score. Don’t pass it back to me.”

With all that in his head, he took the in-bounds pass and started up court to his personal destiny.

As he approached half-court, UW Lorenzo Romar was eyeing the referee to call a timeout. Thomas got his coach’s attention and shook his head. His coach yielded. He let him have the stage.

“He put his trust in me,” Thomas said, “and I thank him.”

But that trust wasn’t there earlier in the season. That still bothered him. It was lodged in the back of his head. In a game Dec. 11 at Texas A&M, Romar designed a play for freshman C.J. Wilcox to take the last shot. He missed it. They lost. Thomas would say later, “I hope some day coach has faith in me to take that shot.”

This was that day.

“Once they scored, I thought, ‘OK, we got to get the last shot,”’ Thomas said. “Things slowed down and opened up.”

Thomas saw that 6-foot MoMo Jones was guarding him. He liked that. He was closer to his 5-9 size. It gave him options.

“That’s why I could get the shot off,” he said. “If the guy had been a little bigger it would have been a little tougher.”

What would he do? Drive? No, they were packed in and the referees wouldn’t call a foul in this situation. Pass? No, it was Thomas Time. Three-pointer? Not necessary, not high percentage? Mid-range jumper? Yeah. That’s what Kobe would do.

“I was going to try to get to the hoop but at the same time I’m not going to force it,” he said. “I’ve seen guys like Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and guys like that always try to get to the elbow, and not settle for the three.”

The elbows are the two corners of the foul lane, angling 16 to 18 feet from the basket. That was his plan. He would take Jones to one side or the other. As a left-hand shooter, he choose the left-hand elbow.

That’s a shot he was confident in because he had practiced it endlessly.

“It was a good shot,” Thomas said. “That’s the shot me and Jason (Terry) worked on the whole summer.”

Terry, the former Franklin High star – who played at Arizona – is now with the Dallas Mavericks. He’s Thomas’ best friend in the pros. They talk and text all the time and work out together when they can. Terry is his mentor.

As he approached the shot, Thomas’ mind was racing. It was in the way, as he feared. He lost the handle momentarily as he made the left turn. Jones almost snatched it away. The clock was inside 10 seconds. Tension was building. He regained control and was back in his zone.

While teammates floated around the court, trying to get open, defenders trying to cover, it didn’t matter to Thomas. His mind finally locked in.  He wasn’t giving it up. But he also wasn’t under undue pressure. The game was tied. Miss it and it’s a second overtime, although that wasn’t a good option. He was determined to finish i.

It was in his hands now. Everyone knew it, to the popcorn guy.

“I just got to the elbow and lifted up and it went in,” said Thomas, who took a step back before rising up. “God made the ball go in the hoop.”

Wilcox, who hit a three-pointer with seven seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime, said, “I think I jumped up in the air before the ball went into the rim.”

Arizona coach Sean Miller, who has seen Thomas record double-doubles in all three games against his team this season, said, “he’s an All-American. How many players do more for their teams than he does? When he made that shot, that was the 45th minute mark in his third game. That says a lot about who he is as a player.”

Thomas finished with a season-high 28 points and seven assists. He finished with a tournament-record 30 assists and was named Most Outstanding Player the second year in a row, only the second player to do that. The Huskies as the No. 3 seed won the tournament for the second year in a row, the second team to do that. He and freshman Terrence Ross, who had 16 points and, like Wilcox, hit a huge three-pointer down the stretch in regulation, were named to the all-tournament team.

Whether Thomas skips his senior season and declares for the NBA draft, that shot will be remembered for as long as there is YouTube. It will be prominently mentioned the day he enters the Husky Hall of Fame. People around town will stop him to replay it. He may never had to pay for a meal again – once he leaves school.

Most importantly for the Huskies, they automatically advance into the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s a good time for us to be playing together and to be playing right, I know that much,” Romar added. “Where we go, we’ll just wait for the call, prepare yourself, then you go.”

That can wait for a few days.

“I’m just going to get on the plane,” Thomas said 20 minutes after cutting down the nets, “and go to sleep.”