"It was a big win. We needed it, we wanted it and we were able to get it down the stretch," Valencia Basket forward Will Thomas said in the locker room after his team held off UNICS Kazan 69-64 in Game 1 of the 7DAYS EuroCup Semfiinals on Tuesday. "They played very well throughout the game. We just played tougher than them down the stretch and got the win."
Just imagine if Thomas substituted the word "I" for the word "we." It may not have sounded modest, but it would have sounded true. Thomas was Valencia's leader and motor with the game on the line. He scored 6 of his 7 points in the game during the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter, which is also when he dished his only assist. Each of those plays had a major impact on the game. His first score broke a 56-56 tie. His assist to Guillem Vives for a triple put Valencia ahead 61-60. His baby hook with just under a minute left stretched the lead to 4 and his final bucket made it 66-60 with 29 seconds to play.
It was a clutch performance from a savvy veteran who knows a thing or two about big games in March. Thomas was a starter on the George Mason University squad that made history by upsetting four higher-ranked teams to reach the NCAA Final Four in 2006. He spent most of his career playing for smaller clubs in Belgium, Georgia, Italy and Turkey before joining Unicaja Malaga in 2014. This is now his third season with Valenca.
For the past few years – and for much of the current season – Bojan Dubljevic has been the man Valencia Basket looks to in close games. However, Dubljevic has been banged up lately and Coach Jaume Ponsarnau chose not to play him at all in the fourth quarter. It was a decision he would not regret.
"We had inspired play from Will [Thomas], who again has been the player dominating in the low post and finding points," Coach Ponsarnau told reporters after.
Thomas is a reliable force who all of his teammates know they can trust, especially in money time. He played the most minutes on the team (25:36) on Tuesday, yet was fresh and energetic down the stretch.
"I thought we fought really hard, especially at the end," center Mike Tobey said. "Will [Thomas] dominated at the end for us. We went to him when we needed him."
It says a lot about a player that his teammates feel that can go to him when they need him. And it says even more about him when he comes through, which is what Will Thomas did in Game 1 of the semifinals.