IImar’I Thomas’ brain works differently than most others.
She is a genius. Literally. After skipping elementary school, Thomas joined the University of Cincinnati campus when he was only 16.
Four years later, the 5-foot-10 striker has become one of the best basketball players in program history.
“I really love the game. I study it. I live it. I breathe basketball,” Thomas told The Enquirer. “That’s all I ever really do. I just watch it and try to get better.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made everything unpredictable this season for third-year Cincinnati head coach Michelle Clark-Heard and the UC women’s basketball team. Games were postponed or canceled, the Bearcats roster was full of injuries, and Thomas and her teammates had to live in isolation outside of practice and on matchdays. But with the turbulent ride that resulted in a 3-10 (2-7 AAC) record, Thomas was the only constant constant for Cincinnati.
“Your IQ is very high,” said Clark-Heard. “She wants to do a lot of things right all the time. What I need from her is not to get frustrated, but to keep being the coach on the floor for me. She has really worked on getting louder but she is leading passing example: I mean, look at her stats, she basically leads our team in every category. “
Thomas averages 23.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game this season, all career highlights. In Wednesday’s home game against Wichita State, Thomas chaired the American Athletic Conference in 10 statistical categories.
Thomas helped take the program to a new level last season, leading the Bearcats to their second straight campaign with 20 wins and an appearance in a conference tournament final, neither of which had taken place since 2002/03.
Cincinnati lost in the AAC tournament championship game to the University of Connecticut, the team that partially inspired Thomas four years ago to leave their hometown of Oakland, California, and venture into Cincinnati.
“It allowed me to be on the stage I’ve always wanted to be on,” said Thomas, who scored 14 points in the defeat. “I’ve always said that I want to be able to play at the highest level. I came in and played against UConn, the number 1 in the country, for three years, usually and at this conference. So that allowed me to object to play.” the best and really got the chance to present my game, play on national television. “
Connecticut left the American and rejoined the Big East Conference that season, paving the way for the Bearcats and pushing Thomas to the top of the AAC’s top players.
Thomas, who was the newcomer of the year to the conference three seasons ago and has had an All-AAC first-team selection for the last two seasons, opened her senior campaign as the American’s co-preseason player of the year along with the Temple striker Mia Davis.
With Thomas one of the league’s strongest attackers, the teams have done everything in their power this season to keep them from taking over games.
“I’ve seen probably every defense I have faced in my career this season,” she said. “I’m dealing with box-and-one doubles, people who won’t even let me catch the ball. I think it’s frustrating at times, but it’s a matter of respect, so I’ll take it.”
Despite seeing a variety of different looks from opposing teams, Thomas said, “I can still get mine.”
Thomas has been doing just that for four years. Her field goal percentage of 0.588 is the highest in program history, and she ranks eighth all-time with 1,656 career points. Thomas is well on his way to finishing third on the all-time list by the end of the season. That would be her behind Cheryl Cook, 2,367, the only UC female player whose number has retired, and Valerie King, 2,156, a player Clark-Heard coached in the early 2000s when she was an assistant under the then UC head coach Laurie Pirtle.
“She piles up with them at the top,” said Clark-Heard of Thomas. “Just because of everything she’s done. Not just what she’s done in her career, but how she’s grown each year. And this year, man, this year, it really shapes how much she’s grown and who she is.”
Outside the court, Thomas is seeking a degree in sports administration with a minor in communication as she seeks a career as a sports agent. That will happen after she fulfills her dream of playing professional basketball, she said.
Thomas breaks up with basketball by plugging in the online video game “Fortnite” or watching “Harry Potter” fantasy films.
On the pitch, Thomas’ legacy is not a fantasy. Regardless of how the rest of this season goes, she’ll go down as one of the best players in the Fifth Third Arena, Clark-Heard said.
“When you think of Cincinnati women’s basketball, I think IImar’I Thomas will be one that everyone will be talking about for a long time.”