By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Steffaney Thomas spent the fall semester of her junior year doing mission work in Africa, and she didn’t pick up a basketball from the time the 2010 season ended until practice began for this season.
“I really felt like I’d lost a lot of my quickness and the natural feeling of basketball,” Thomas said. “As the season has gone along, it’s starting to come back.”
Thomas, making her third straight start and third of her career, scored 15 points, helping Minnesota State defeat Minnesota Crookston 85-78 in a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference women’s basketball game Saturday at Bresnan Arena.
When Thomas, a 5-foot-11 reserve for her first two seasons at Minnesota State, left the basketball program, she didn’t think she’d ever play again, but she missed the game and her teammates. But last summer, she talked with former coach Pam Gohl about returning, maybe only as a practice player, but Gohl had a spot on the roster that needed to be filled.
“I just wanted to come back,” Thomas said. “I didn’t care what my role was; I just wanted to be good at whatever I did. Be the loudest cheerer on the bench, whatever. I just adore my teammates, and I wanted to be around them.”
Thomas, who got married in July, struggled early and didn’t get a lot of playing time. But last week, when Jamie Bresnahan had to miss a game with a knee injury, Thomas took advantage of her opportunity as a starter.
“We see her in practice every day so we know what she’s capable of,” coach Emilee Thiesse said. “It’s not a given that she wold do well, but she’s a senior now, and she’s playing in her last few games. She understands what the team needs.”
In three games as a starter, Thomas has scored 38 points with 12 rebounds and seven assists. She’s made 13 of 23 shots, including all three 3-pointers, and 9 of 14 free throws. On Saturday, she scored 15 points, making 6 of 6 free throws to spark the victory.
“This has exceeded any of my expectations,” she said. “I never imagined it, but I could only have success with the support of my teammates. They have confidence in me so I have confidence in myself.”
Ali Wilkinson led Minnesota State with 25 points, Aubrey Davis added 13, and Karlee Gengenbacher had 11. Ali Hoefer led the team with seven rebounds.
Bresnahan could be back next week, when the Minnesota State (18-4, 14-4 in Northern Sun) takes its final road trip of the regular season, playing at Upper Iowa on Friday and at Winona State on Saturday. Thomas, who could have another season of eligibility but won’t play because she graduates with a nursing major in December, could be back on the bench, but it would seem she’s earned more playing time with her performance in the last three games.
“I couldn’t imagine a better way to finish my career,” she said. “It was worth the seven months or so of training. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”