Former Bainbridge star April Thomas is the conference’s second- leading scorer at 20.1 points a game heading into the tourney today. (Herald file photo)
ATLANTA — How far can April Thomas take the Albany State Lady Rams?
That’s the question heading into this week’s conference tournament in Atlanta, where ASU is seeded No. 5 and enters today’s opener against No. 4 Miles on a five-game losing streak.
Coach Robert Skinner isn’t giving up on his Lady Rams just yet though — not with Bainbridge’s Thomas, the conference’s second-leading scorer who averages 20.1 points per game, leading the way.
“We will go where April takes us,” Skinner said. “We go as she goes. If she can get a good game in, we need to play behind her.”
Thomas, who is just a sophomore, is only 5-foot-1 but plays like a giant on the court, where she is second in the conference in 3-point shooting (36.9 percent) and third in the both field goal (40.7) and free throw (79.0) percentage.
Any hopes of ASU’s first conference title since 1998 likely rest with Thomas, the conference’s second-leading scorer and the most feared shooter in this week’s tournament.
“I feel like I need to play great every game, but it’s tournament time now so the greatness needs to go up another level,” Thomas said.
She’ll be looking for some of that greatness to carry over to her teammates, too.
Nobody else on ASU’s roster averages more than 10 points per game, and Thomas has led the Lady Rams in scoring in all but six games this season — stats she believes need to change this week.
“The fate of us winning the (conference) championship really isn’t in my hands,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be in our posts’ hands. It’s really going to come down to them stepping up and playing with heart.”
The bottom line? However far Thomas takes the Lady Rams (8-15) this week all depends on who wants to come along for the ride.
And nobody is more important than former Mitchell County star Kedeemya Cooper, who is the only other Lady Ram to lead the team in scoring in more than one game. Cooper, a 5-8 sophomore post, averages 9.9 points and a team-high nine rebounds per game, and Thomas believes that any postseason success runs through Cooper as much as it does through her.
And Skinner agrees.
“We need to have her on the boards,” Skinner said. “The reason April shoots as much as she does is because we really don’t have an inside presence other than Cooper. No one else has stepped up and proven themselves on the inside.”
Thomas has the shot, and Cooper has the size. And together, the sophomores think they have the answer to ASU’s recent troubles.
“April can’t win games by herself,” Cooper said. “We know her potential, and we know she is a great shooter, but the games we win are when we have the whole team contributing.”
Two years ago, Cooper and Thomas were high school rivals, one-upping each other in Mitchell County-Bainbridge matchups — but sometime in the past two years Thomas said her teammate lost her edge.
“She played with a lot more confidence in high school than she does out here,” Thomas said. “She was an all-around player, dribbling up and down the court, shooting the threes and driving in for the easy layup. Now she still does those things, but you can tell she was a lot more confident in herself in high school.”
Thomas thinks confidence from Cooper and the rest of her teammates could make the difference as the Lady Rams look for their first win since way back on Feb. 2.
“I really don’t think there is a team that can beat us if we play like I know we can, because we have more shooters than any other team,” said Thomas, who is a major reason the Lady Rams have the best 3-point shooting percentage in the conference. “We have shooters out there, but we have to work on getting the confidence to take those shots.”
Thomas hasn’t backed down from any shot attempts this season, and she isn’t backing down from the pressure that comes with being the target of every defense.
“There really isn’t any pressure (to score),” Thomas said. “I don’t think about it like I have to go out there and do this or do that or we won’t win. I pray before every game and just ask God to allow me to play my best. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”
But she is feeling the pressure from former Lady Rams, who are ready to see the team’s 15-year conference championship drought end.
“We have some mentors who were on that (last title) team back in 1998, and they are always telling us about that history,” Thomas said. “There is a lot of pressure on us, because we want to get a win for the school. Fifteen years is a long time to go without a championship, and we are ready to break that down this year and win it.”