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Marshall basketball: Thomas gives Herd different element

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Johnny Thomas gutted out 30 minutes - double the amount Marshall Coach Tom Herrion had hoped for - on a still-tender right ankle last Saturday at Southern Mississippi.

Thomas is a 6-foot-6 junior in his first season for the Herd, and he typically plays small forward but has the length and versatility to slide to the four and spell mainstay Tirrell Baines. Thomas, however, wasn't hurried back into the lineup because of his offensive prowess, although he is no slouch there.

Herrion and the Herd missed Thomas' defense, and the N.C. State transfer brought that back immediately upon his return to the court, even with a bum wheel. 

"He showed a lot to me," Herrion said of Thomas, who missed four consecutive games and most of a fifth with a sprained ankle. "He changes the element of our team and he's so versatile defensively."

Consider this: Southern Miss star Gary Flowers, who leads Conference USA in scoring at 20.2 points per game, has been shadowed by Thomas for two full games this season.

Flowers scored 20 points in each of those games, but it also took Flowers 21 shots to reach that number last month in Huntington and 22 shots this past Saturday in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Only three times this season has the number of Flowers' field goal attempts been greater than his total number of points, and two of those can be traced directly to Thomas.

After the heavy weekend workload, Thomas said he was "sore" at Monday's practice, where Marshall (15-8, 3-5) prepared for Wednesday's 7 p.m. home showdown with UAB (16-6, 6-3).

"But I was anticipating that with the type of injury I had and trying to come back early," Thomas said. "I've got to deal with it the rest of the season, but I'm trying to play hard and be there for my team every night."

The injury occurred early in the win over West Virginia on Jan. 19. Thomas did not return to that game and spent more than a week on crutches. Herrion did not seem optimistic about a quick return for Thomas at the time, but there he was Saturday flustering Flowers and adding a steady, veteran presence to the Herd.

Thomas scored eight points - he averages 8.7 - and grabbed three rebounds off the bench. Thomas' availability pushed Dago Pena back into the starting lineup and gave Herrion access to all 10 of his remaining scholarship players.

Herrion said that gives him more versatility, using Shaquille Johnson off the bench to relieve guards Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane, and Thomas off the bench - as it stands now - in place of Pena or Baines.

Although against Southern Miss, Thomas' 30 minutes trumped Pena's 14, even though Pena got the starting nod. 

No matter who is announced in the pregame introductions, Thomas is content to lend a hand with Marshall starting the back-end of its conference schedule.

"I feel like with me back it helps a lot," Thomas said. "I was talking to Dre, Shaq and Pitts about that. I want to get out there and defend and get some transition baskets when I can.

"I'm not even thinking about my ankle. I just want to help my team and bring that spirit to the game, whether it is off the bench if that happens or at the beginning of the game if I start."

Contact sportswriter Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.


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