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Filled to the brim with talent, toughness and playoff passion, Alyssa Thomas seeks the championship that has eluded her since college

Last year, Cat Arial looked at Skylar Diggins-Smith’s quest to win a first championship in the NCAA or WNBA. This year we take a look at Alyssa Thomas.

Connecticut Sun v Dallas Wings
Alyssa Thomas
Photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

Alyssa Thomas is one of the greatest active WNBA players who played at perennial NCAAW power and has yet to win a championship in college or the WNBA. Tina Charles, the greatest player without a WNBA title, of course won two national championships at UConn.

Two that come to mind ahead of Thomas are Angel McCoughtry (Louisville) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (Notre Dame). Below Thomas, Chiney Ogwumike (Stanford) and Kayla McBride (Notre Dame) are a couple who have been in the WNBA for a minute.

There’s also Betnijah Laney and Kelsey Plum. Rutgers, a proud program, was not a major power during Laney’s four years there, while Washington, a less-historic program, made a Final Four during Plum’s four years there.

Thomas is one of the best players on this list if we’re looking at career achievements (and, honestly, talent, as only three players in the entire league came ahead of her in MVP voting this year, Plum being one of them). At age 30, she’s also the fourth oldest, behind McCoughtry, Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike, the last of whom is only 22 days older.

Now, this list doesn't include those who went to non-power colleges. For example, Thomas’ Sun teammate Jonquel Jones, who is just as important to Connecticut and spent a year at Clemson and three at George Washington. But the thing about Thomas is that she went to a school that expected to win a national championship and came close to winning a national championship before falling short. That doesn’t make lacking a championship any more painful for Thomas, but it makes for a storyline.

The only other players in the Finals who are close to Thomas in age or older and have never won it all in college or the WNBA are Jasmine Thomas of the Sun (age 32) and Riquna Williams (age 32) and Theresa Plaisance (age 30 — 36 days younger than Thomas) of the Aces.

J. Thomas, while perhaps not as great a WNBA player as Thomas (though she is a one-time All-Star), is the one whose story most closely resembles that of Thomas. She went to Duke, a perennial power at the time, and played for a No. 1 seed, two No. 2 seeds and a No. 3 seed. The Blue Devils went to two Elite Eights in J. Thomas’ tenure. This is comparable to Thomas’ two Elite Eights and one Final Four derived from one No. 2 seed and three No. 4 seeds at Maryland.

Plaisance made three tournaments with LSU (5, 6 and 7 seed) and made two Sweet Sixteens, but never the Elite Eight. Williams made it to two tournaments (both as a No. 3 seed), but never made the Sweet Sixteen.

Thomas, Plaisance and Williams have all been to the Finals once before and all lost in Game 5 (Thomas and Plaisance were teammates on the 2019 runner-up Sun). J. Thomas lost in 2019 and also in 2013 when her Atlanta Dream were swept by the Minnesota Lynx.

All things considered, Thomas is the one who will likely get the most attention in this series as the one searching for her first championship in college or the WNBA. Plaisance and Williams aren’t as key players to the Aces as Thomas is to the Sun and J. Thomas has been out since May with a torn ACL and will not return for the Finals. However, from Thomas’ perspective she's probably playing for J. Thomas just as much as she’s playing for herself.

Thomas played with the heart of a champion as a Terrapin, as you can see from this video set to the tune of “Roar” by Katy Perry:

You’ll also notice in the above highlights that she still had a sweet mid-range game back then. With that mid-range game, she was a No. 4 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, so fourth-best in her class. Without it, she just finished fourth in MVP voting for the entire league! It’s amazing how she has adjusted and continued to become a better player despite this obstacle.

Maryland had missed the NCAA Tournament the year before Thomas was a freshman. Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman graduated in 2009 leaving not enough time for the program to rebuild by the time the following season rolled around. Then, in 2010-11, Thomas arrived along with another named you will of course recognize: Natasha Cloud. Laurin Mincy and Alicia DeVaughn were also notable Terps who started that year. Mincy ended up getting slightly more minutes than Cloud in a backcourt that also featured Anjale Barrett and Dara Taylor and Cloud ended up transferring to St. Joseph’s as a sophomore.

With Thomas leading the way, the 2010-11 Terps earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and had high hopes of making a deep run. Sugar Rodgers and Georgetown put an end to those ambitions in the second round, but A. Thomas scored 23 of Maryland’s 57 points and had 14 rebounds, thus beginning her career of performing well in defeat in the postseason.

Thomas went on to win ACC Player of the Year each of the next three seasons. She was known for being a freight train in transition and for her scoring, rebounding, passing and defense. She averaged a double-double as both a junior and senior and drew comparisons to LeBron James.

As far as team success, the Terps went 31-5 (13-4 ACC) Thomas’ sophomore year, earning a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. Mincy had emerged as a great No. 2 scoring option, averaging 13.1 points per game to Thomas’ 17.2, while another name you’ll recognize, Tianna Hawkins, averaged 12 points and 9.1 rebounds as a junior. Maryland picked up wins over great programs in Louisville and defending champion Texas A&M en route to an Elite Eight appearance, but were embarrassed by Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame 80-49 before they could reach the Final Four. Thomas had 17 points, but Diggins had a triple-double of 22 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists to go along with five steals.

Fast forward to Thomas’ junior year: Mincy suffered a season-ending ACL tear in November and sophomore Brene Moseley, who had a solid freshman season at point guard and looked to be a key contributor, missed the entire season with the same injury. Freshman Chloe Pavlech filled in in the backcourt and provided a spark despite not being a Hoop Gurlz Top 100 recruit. Plus, Xavier transfer and 3-point specialist Katie Rutan averaged 9.5 points per game, DeVaughn was her usual steady self and No. 8 Hoop Gurlz freshman Malina Howard was solid. But the real story of the season was the emergence of Tianna Hawkins as a bona fide first-round prospect. As a senior, she averaged 18 points and 9.7 rebounds, becoming almost as great as A. Thomas (18.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists).

This cast of characters would run into another All-World player, this time Breanna Stewart in the Sweet Sixteen. Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 17 points apiece to eliminate the Terps and UConn went on to win four championships in a row.

Then came A. Thomas’ big moment in college: The 2014 Final Four. The Terps finally made it there with the help of freshmen Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbough, who are both now in the WNBA. As a No. 4 seed, the Terps beat Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen and Louisville in the Elite Eight, but lost to Notre Dame in the Final Four. It was a 26-point loss and that’s as close as A. Thomas got to a national championship. But it seemed like she should have gotten closer, perhaps in 2012-13 had Mincy and Moseley been healthy. Maryland could have gotten a higher seed in that scenario, but with Stewart around it would have been hard to win the final game of the season.

In the WNBA, it has been Emma Meesseman, Elena Delle Donne, A’ja Wilson, Courtney Vandersloot, Candace Parker and Kahleah Copper preventing AT from winning a championship.

Playoff Emma won Finals MVP in 2019, perhaps stealing the award from A. Thomas (or J. Jones). AT averaged 18.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists for the series, including 21 points, 12 boards and six assists in Game 5.

2022 WNBA Playoffs - Connecticut Sun v Chicago Sky
These three players were all phenomenal in the 2019 WNBA Finals.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The core of that 2019 Sun team was A. Thomas, J. Jones, Courtney Williams and J. Thomas. That core would have improved in 2020 with the addition of DeWanna Bonner via sign-and-trade outweighing the loss of Courtney Williams via a different trade, but J. Jones opted out of the wubble season. The Sun started 0-5 without their versatile 6-foot-6 superstar, but rebounded to make the playoffs. They then beat the Chicago Sky in the first round and a very good Los Angeles Sparks team in the second round before A. Thomas’ epic semifinal series against the Aces where she came back from a dislocated shoulder and led Connecticut to a 2-1 series lead. Alas, the Sun would fall to Vegas in five games, ending an improbable run.

The whole disrespeCTed attitude was a big theme in Uncasville in 2020 and it continued into 2021, a season that begin with the Sun not expected to fare well with A. Thomas set to miss the entire season with a torn Achilles. But the Sun finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed and A. Thomas made a miraculous return to the court toward the end. The disrespeCTed squad turned into championship favorites, but Courtney Vandersloot’s double-overtime triple-double in Chicago’s Game 1 win over the Sun set the tone for the rest of the semis, which the Sky won 3-1.

That brings us to now. Not talked about nearly as much as the Aces and Sky entering the postseason, the Sun were only one game behind those two in the regular-season standings. They proved they are for real by getting revenge on Chicago in the semis and now stand three wins away from the first championship in franchise history. A. Thomas did her part in Game 1 with 19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks, but the Sun came up three points shy of Vegas.

It’s looking like A. Thomas and Wilson will go toe to toe like they did in the 2020 semis and that the Sun have a fighting chance in the series. If they do win, Maryland and Sun fans alike will rejoice knowing that the heart of a champion has finally been rewarded.