When it comes to scoring points, Academy at the Lakes’ Imani Thomas is in rare company.
The Wildcats’ junior post player became the fifth player in school history to surpass the career 1,000-point mark when she scored 17 points in a 79-45 victory over Cornerstone Orlando on Dec. 2.
“It was great,” said Thomas who is coached by Karim Nohra.
“When I got to 1,000 points, coach called a timeout and my (teammates) all gave me a hug and congratulated me.”
Coach Nohra put the achievement in perspective.
“It’s a huge accomplishment because not everybody gets to a landmark like 1,000 (points),” said Nohra, who’s in his sixth year coaching the Wildcats. “She actually did it early in her junior year, which is even more impressive.”
Standing at 5-foot-10, Thomas plays with a bruising mentality, utilizing her strength to gain position in the post and get easy baskets, even against taller opponents.
“She goes up against 6-footers and has no problem because she uses her size and abilities to her advantage,” Coach Nohra said. “She has good feet and she jumps pretty well for her size. When she comes to play it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, she’s tough to stop.’ ”
In addition to averaging 13.2 points per game, Thomas is able to leverage her size and leaping ability to average 13 rebounds per game.
Since her freshman year, Thomas has continually refined her game by improving her post up moves and shooting ability, while learning to efficiently dribble with her left hand.
“As a freshman, I was still learning and trying to develop my skills,” said Thomas, who’s been playing basketball since the sixth grade. “Now, I’m putting up more shots, rebounding more and taking the ball to the basket harder than I was my freshman year.”
Coach Nohra added that Thomas, who has an offer to play college basketball at Flagler College in St. Augustine, has a better understanding of the game, and also has more control over her emotions compared to when she was younger.
“I think she’s grown as a player in that a lot of things used to upset her and now, they don’t upset her as much,” he said. “Before, as a freshman, I had to sometimes yank her out of the game to calm her down because she’d be like, ‘I got fouled, Why didn’t (the referees) call a foul on me?’ ”
As she’s matured, Thomas has used the lack of foul calls as a motivating factor to play tougher defense and make plays at opposite end of the floor.
“I’m a lot bigger than my other teammates and I know I’m not going to get the foul,” Thomas stated. “It’s frustrating, but I know when I get back on defense I’m going to get a stop and I’m going to come back down (the floor) and score.”
Coach Nohra believes Thomas doesn’t get more foul calls because the general consensus from refs and officials is that “she can take a beating” because of her unique combination of size and strength.
“She’s got people draped over her and when you hit her, she doesn’t flinch,” he said. “She absorbs those hits. That’s how strong she is.”
With just a few games left in the regular season before district play, Coach Nohra is hoping to lead the Wildcats to the Class 2A girls basketball state championships for a fifth consecutive year.
“It’s something that no team in the area can say,” Nohra remarked about reaching the state finals the past four years. “Our overall goal is always to win the district, be one of the best teams in the area and get to Lakeland for the state championships. … We have a great shot to get there.”
Nohra, who’s been coaching for 23 years — with stops along the way at Tampa Catholic, Cambridge Christian and Wesley Chapel high schools — subscribes to a philosophy that focuses on playing up-tempo, utilizing defensive pressure systems and scoring baskets quickly in transition.
He refers to his coaching methods as “choreographed chaos.”
“If you looked at our team, you’d say, ‘What in the heck are they doing? That’s not what normally happens,’” said Nohra, who’s amassed over 500 career wins. “We do not follow standard basketball protocol…like a point guard must dribble down the middle of the court or when you line up for a free throw, you have two people from your team on the line.
“I think our success lies in the fact that we do things so differently than other teams do.”
From a player’s perspective, Thomas said many of Coach Nohra’s drills seem peculiar in practice, but end up benefitting the team in live-game situations.
“Every practice we go through drills and sometimes I’m thinking like, ‘What is he doing? These drills are not made for me. This is not going to work,’ ” Thomas said. “And then, when he explains it we go into a game and we do it and he says, ‘This is the drill I told you to do. This is the drill we’ve been working on…they’ll work for you.’”
With the likelihood of playing several more games in the postseason, Thomas and her fellow teammates are focused on sending the roster’s two seniors, Janise Cassanello and Luz Santiago, out on a high note.
Thomas believes this year’s team has the formula to do just that.
“We connect outside of basketball and inside of basketball,” Thomas said. “We connect with each other and that’s what a team is. If you connect, you’ll play well on the court.”
Published January 13, 2016