PREVIEW: Lady Rams open season tonight vs. Valdosta State

April Thomas, ASU's leading scorer a year ago, returns for the Lady Rams, who open the season tonight at Valdosta State.

April Thomas, ASU's leading scorer a year ago, returns for the Lady Rams, who open the season tonight at Valdosta State.

ALBANY — April Thomas knows how to score.

Now the former Bainbridge star and Albany State sophomore wants to learn how to win.

And she thinks she has the right pieces around her this season to lead the Albany State women’s basketball team to its first conference championship since 1998.

“Winning a conference championship would mean everything to me,” Thomas said. “But we don’t just wait till the end of the season to work hard. We have been working hard from the beginning. But that’s definitely No. 1 on my priority list. I want to get that ring.”

That’s the goal for the Lady Rams, who begin the season today at Valdosta State. ASU opened with a 68-57 loss to VSU last season and started the year with six straight defeats before finally getting a victory.

Thomas, who averaged a team-high 18 points per game last season and is one of just two returning starters, thinks this year can be different.

“With the new players, we have good chemistry out there on the court,” Thomas said. “They are good ball players and don’t play like they are new. They play like they have been here all along.”

The Lady Rams lost Symone Wilkerson (12.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and post players Breanna Fields (10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Shellman native Precious Peak (4.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) to graduation, leaving Thomas and junior Kourtney Alexander (7.7 ppg) as the lone returning starters.

Nikki Wilson, ex-Mitchell star Kedeemya Cooper and Mecca Frost saw time last season off the bench and will see considerable more this year, while a pair of freshman post players — Valdosta native Sierra Foster and Kadesha Matthews — and Darton transfer Amber McKenzie will give the Lady Rams depth.

“We have the talent, but the question is can we jell and come together at the right time?” said Robert Skinner, who is entering his 22nd year as head coach of the Lady Rams. “I think we have some talent and some kids who can get the job done, I just don’t know what they are going to do with that.”

The Lady Rams finished last season with an 11-17 record — just the third time in Skinner’s career at ASU that his team has posted a record below .400.

But Skinner believes Thomas and the rest of the Lady Rams have the ability put points on the board this season and bring a winning record back to ASU.

“We spend half of our practice just shooting the basketball,” Skinner said. “You are going to generate your wins from your offense, so I believe that if you can shoot the ball and hit your free throws, then you can win games. Defensively, it’s just a matter of going out there and playing with heart.”

Thomas was 23rd in the nation in scoring last season while shooting 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.

Skinner said his star player has only gotten better.

“I have seen flashes of her doing things better,” Skinner said. “I have seen her be a more complete ball player this year. Her accuracy has gotten better in the offseason. She is much more accurate shooting the ball and is shooting with more confidence.”

It didn’t take long for McKenzie, who averaged 3.9 points and 2.9 rebounds last year coming off the Darton bench, to find out just how special a player Thomas is.

“Even if I’m wide open, I’ll pass her the ball because I know that nine times out of 10 she is going to make it,” McKenzie said. “I have a lot of confidence in her. She is a leader. As young as she is, she is a leader.”

Thomas attempted nearly twice as many shots as anybody else on ASU’s roster last season, but the 5-foot-1 star guard believes this year’s squad will be more balanced.

“If we need a quick basket or if the game is on the line, I can be that,” she said. “But there are going to be some other girls out there who are going to step up, too. So I won’t be alone this year.”

She’s also not alone in dreaming of that conference championship.

“To finally get back to the conference championship game and win it would be special,” Skinner said. “For this team to come out with all these new kids and work hard enough to get into the championship game and win it, man, that would me nothing short of a miracle. But that’s not saying it can’t be done. I know it can be.”