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Ex-Bainbridge star Thomas leading Lady Rams into tournament

Albany State freshman April Thomas is 21st in the nation in scoring and will be key for the Lady Rams when they play Claflin in today's conference tournament.

Albany State freshman April Thomas is 21st in the nation in scoring and will be key for the Lady Rams when they play Claflin in today's conference tournament.

ALBANY — April Thomas has heard the doubters and naysayers her whole life.

The 5-foot-1 shooting guard, who will lead the Albany State Lady Rams in today’s conference tournament opener against Claflin, has heard the haters this season, too.

“They’ll say, ‘Stop that short girl’ or ‘Don’t be letting her drive. She’s too short,’ ”

said Thomas, who was named the conference Freshman of the Year and to the all-conference team on Monday. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m short. But you can’t stop me.’ ”

She’s not kidding.

They really haven’t been able to stop her.

Thomas, a former Bainbridge star, leads the conference and is 21st in the nation in scoring with 18.5 points per game. She has been the best player on an ASU team that is better than its 10-16 record and No. 7 seed in the conference tournament indicate.

Albany State coach Robert Skinner said it’s her confidence that gives her an edge.

“She doesn’t believe anybody can stop her,” Skinner said. “Most of the time she is the smallest thing on the court, but you can’t tell her she can’t get the job done. She really believes she can put the ball in every time she shoots.”

And she’s had that confidence for years.

“In middle school, my principal Mr. Macintosh told me after one game I played that the biggest thing about me was my heart,” Thomas said. “Even though I am short I don’t show it on the court. I just go out there and play. I’m very confident. I don’t doubt I can do anything once I step on the court.”

She’s humble, too.

“I always work hard, but I also stay prayed up,” she said. “I pray and thank God for everything He has done for me. He is one of the biggest reasons I have done so well.”

Thomas and ASU point guard Symone Wilkerson, who could have easily made the all-conference team had the Lady Rams finished higher in the conference standings, will be key in today’s game and the rest of the tournament.

“Symone’s ability to get (Thomas) the ball in positions for her to score, and (Wilkerson’s) ability to score when she is open (will be the key),” Skinner said. “Everybody on the team has settled in that (Thomas) is our scorer. It took a while for some of them to realize it, but now when it comes to shooting the basketball they have faith and confidence in her.”

Thomas will need to continue to find her points, but Wilkerson may be the extra weapon the Lady Rams need to make a run in the tournament.

“Personally, I think we have the best point guard in the conference,” Skinner said of Wilkerson, a 5-5 senior from Bonaire. “Without her and if she isn’t playing at the top of her game, we don’t win. If she is at the top of her game, everything else cancels out and we can win the tournament.”

ASU’s first hurdle will be No. 10 seed Claflin, which the Lady Rams swept in the regular season.

“I hope it doesn’t give them a false sense of security though. I know how hard it is to beat a team three times in one year,” Skinner said. “I think our confidence level is up and we have played better the last couple of ball games. We are more focused.”

A first-round win for ASU pits the Lady Rams against No. 2 seed Stillman at 6 p.m. Thursday.

RAMS NO. 10 IN WIDE-OPEN TOURNEY: Anything could happen in the men’s tournament, and that’s what is giving teams like No. 10 Albany State some hope.

Five games separate No.1 Tuskegee from No. 10 Albany State, leaving the door wide open for early-round upsets.

“Anybody can get beat,” said Albany State coach Chris Cameron, whose Rams swept Tuskegee this season. “And I assure you that one of those top seeds will get upset in their first game. Some of those teams have already beaten them, so there is no fear of the No. 1 seeds like there has been in the past.”

The Rams (12-14, 11-13)open postseason play at noon Wednesday against No. 7 Kentucky State (12-14, 12-12). KSU and ASU split a pair of games in the regular season.

“We match up well with them,” Cameron said. “They are small like us. Bigger teams have hurt us throughout the year, and that has been a weakness for us. With Kentucky State, we feel like we have a team that we are fully capable of beating. They are playing well right now, so we just need to make sure that we continue to play well.”

The Rams are winners of two of their last three games and all that stood between them and a three-game winning streak was a missed buzzer beater in Thursday’s one-point loss to Stillman.

ASU has lost six games by less than five points this season, so Cameron knows his Rams could have easily been seeded higher.

“We compare this team to our ’07 team that actually (won the tournament),” said Cameron. “We haven’t had this kind of depth since (2007). This team plays 10 guys. That team played eight. Size-wise we matchup about the same. Both of the teams have a lot of similarities.”

While the Rams will be trying to mimic their success from five years ago, they will be trying to avoid a repeat of last season’s tournament opener against Kentucky State, which they lost due to some late-game mistakes.

Some of those same mistakes have cost the Rams in close games this season.

“The bottom line is, if you want to win you can’t make all of those mistakes,” Cameron said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heal this year, and that’s been our conversation with the guys. Because If we can do that we feel that we can match up with the other teams in the league, talent-wise.”

If the Rams win Wednesday’s opener, they will play No. 2 seed LeMoyne-Owen at 4 p.m. Thursday.