March 22, 2004
By MICHAEL MAROT
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Chris Thomas decided the best place for the ball was in his own hands.
The Notre Dame point guard scored a career-high 39 points, including 27 in the second half, to lead the Fighting Irish past Saint Louis 77-66 in the second round of the NIT.
"A game like this you want the ball on every possession," Thomas said.
For Thomas, it was no problem.
In a sort of homecoming - playing in his father's hometown and needing 25 tickets for his family and friends to join the sold-out, partisan crowd - Thomas had one of the best games of his career.
He hit 12-of-20 shots, was 6-for-11 from 3-point range, grabbed five rebounds and pestered Saint Louis guards all night defensively.
His pinpoint shooting got Notre Dame out of an offensive funk that could have ended its season.
Thomas couldn't have scripted it much better, falling just short of becoming the first Notre Dame player since Monty Williams in 1993 to score 40 points. Williams had 42 against Valparaiso on Nov. 28, 1993.
"My grandmother's been sick," he said. "A number of my cousins and family members, this was a great chance for them to come and see me play because they don't get that chance at Notre Dame."
The Irish (19-12) won for the sixth time in seven games and won their fourth straight in a 30-game series against the Billikens. The teams last met Jan. 30, 1985.
Notre Dame returns to South Bend on Thursday to host a third-round game against the winner of Tuesday night's game between Oregon and George Mason.
But it seemed the Irish were already at home on a "neutral" court. There were almost 1,500 more people in the crowd than Notre Dame drew for its first-round home game last week against Purdue.
Thomas credited the crowd for helping boost the Irish morale during some
Coach Mike Brey, who won for the second straight year on his birthday, wasted little time in grabbing the microphone and thanking the crowd after the final buzzer sounded.
"I want to say thank you Fort Wayne," he said, after the Irish's first game in the northeastern Indiana city since December 1967. "We really felt at home here tonight."
So did Thomas, who changed the game midway through the second half.
Saint Louis (19-13) was led by Josh Fisher scored 21 points and Reggie Bryant with 19, but the Billikens couldn't knock Thomas off his game.
"We knew he was good, but that was ridiculous, phenomenal," Billikens coach Brad Soderberg said. "I don't think we defended him poorly. He made some NBA-type shots. We got beat by a great player."
The Billikens led 26-25 at the half and hung around until Thomas took over.
He hit a 3-pointer and two free throws to erase Saint Louis' 37-35 lead, then followed Jordan Cornette's 3-pointer with another 3 to make it 46-41 with 12:14 to go.
The Billikens helped Thomas out, too.
With Notre Dame leading 50-44, Saint Louis' Chris Sloan drew a technical foul when he slammed his stool into the floor during a television time-out.
Thomas followed that by hitting two more free throws, then a 3-pointer to give Notre Dame a 52-44 lead. He sealed the game by scoring 11 straight points to make it 65-48.
"When a good player gets a hot hand, that makes him that much harder to guard," Fisher said. "He hit some really tough shots with my hands in his face."