- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He’s the guy in North Carolina’s locker room who talks nearly every day with one-time teammate Marvin Williams, the man who has been part of more victories than any other player in school history and the last holdover from the Tar Heels’ national title team in 2005.

Quentin Thomas also might be as responsible as anyone not named Tyler Hansbrough for keeping the North Carolina juggernaut rolling through February.

Wait … who?

To many, the Tar Heels’ lone scholarship senior does not occupy a heralded place in a North Carolina constellation featuring a possible national player of the year (Hansbrough), a pair of all-conference caliber talents (Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson) and a Hall of Fame coach (Roy Williams).

Yet when point guards Bobby Frasor (ACL tear) and Lawson (sprained ankle) went down with injuries earlier this season, it was Thomas who stabilized top-seeded North Carolina (34-2), which meets fourth-seeded Washington State (26-8) in the East regional semifinals tonight at Charlotte Bobcats Arena.

“I didn’t see it coming, but I had full confidence in Q,” forward Danny Green said. “I knew if he was going to play major minutes, he was going to come through. He’s at North Carolina for a reason — he’s a good player, so he’s going to be able to run the offense. He just had to get the confidence and get comfortable in the system.”

It took a while for Thomas, an Oakland, Calif., native who started the first game of his career in 2004 before settling into a reserve role fraught with wrong turns. There were ankle, foot and knee injuries. When he was healthy, he frequently endured ineffective play.

Then came the Feb. 3 injury to Lawson. In stepped Thomas, who averaged 6.6 assists in the seven games Lawson either barely played in or missed. North Carolina’s record in that stretch: 6-1 with the lone loss against Duke.

“Confidence is the biggest thing,” Thomas said. “I’m not saying I never had it, but it was hard to always keep it at times.”

It’ll be hard to shake it now. Thomas was logging only 9.3 minutes a game before being thrust into the lineup, just a bit more than his career average. His presence — and ability to get the ball inside to Hansbrough — ensured he would have a bigger role once Lawson returned.

Lawson reclaimed his starting spot at the ACC tournament. Thomas handled the switch with ease and had 10 assists and no turnovers in 30 minutes in North Carolina’s two NCAA tournament routs last weekend.

“I like to say it was a blessing in disguise because it helped me out as an individual for this team and it helped this team as a whole,” Thomas said. “… When I came back, the media was asking me ‘How do you feel about not starting?’ and I had no problem because I knew with Ty back it would make this team stronger.”

So it has. The lone remaining member of coach Roy Williams’ first recruiting class — Marvin Williams left after a year for the NBA, and J.R. Smith went pro before making it to Chapel Hill — provides the Tar Heels the flexibility some feared they lost went Frasor went down in December.

Thomas’ emergence ensured North Carolina would not have to alter its frenetic pace, much to the delight of a team that revels in outrunning its opponents.

“He’s been a savior for us, and it is a feel-good story for me as a coach because he’s had so much adversity,” Roy Williams said. “He had gotten some opportunities and didn’t grab it and run with it and then he’d also get hurt, so he had the adversity of injuries and of not playing well when he got an opportunity, and then all the sudden this year we needed him to do it. Not just we wanted him to do it, we needed him to do it, and he really did.”

It has helped the Tar Heels move within two victories of a trip to San Antonio, where Thomas’ parents would get to watch him for the first time in this postseason — a priority emphasized by the words “FAM” and “FIRST” tattooed on his fists.

But there’s equally great incentive in bookending his career with another title. In recent weeks, Thomas reminded teammates just how special the national championship experience is and how he recalls nearly every detail.

It’s just another way Q can provide critical A’s for the Tar Heels.

“I’m very fortunate because I can basically relate to my teammates who haven’t been here yet,” Thomas said. “I want to say yet because I hope that we get there — just the experience, the fun and the exposure when you get there. But we can’t think about that until we take care of business today.”

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