By the time Thomas kicked the possession arrow to the side on his way back to the floor, the Golden Hurricane was throwing it wildly while accruing a 10-second violation -its 25th turnover - during its 85-73 loss against Arkansas on Tuesday in Bud Walton Arena.
Thomas, a 6-foot-7 Arkansas freshman forward who led the Razorbacks with a career-high 16 points, roared at the defensive stop and the announced crowd of 16,603 sprang to its feet for the loudest ovation of the night.
This is the passion coach Stan Heath said was missing during Saturday's 79-63 win against Gardner-Webb.
It's the kind Arkansas (5-0) will need Saturday against No. 5 Illinois (4-0) in North Little Rock's Alltel Arena.
"Tonight we came out with a lot of energy," Thomas said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give us an 11. We played with a lot more intensity and we had more fun."
Arkansas shot 49.2 percent from the field (including 8 of 20 from the 3-point line) and could have won by more if not for a 17 of 29 effort from the free-throw line.
Sophomore Olu Famutimi, who had 11 points, 4 assists, 2 steals and no turnovers, said Arkansas' passion was the deciding factor.
"That's what won us the game -- our energy," he said.
The Razorbacks can finally start thinking about the Fighting Illini -- who play top-ranked Wake Forest tonight in the Atlantic Coast Conference/Big 10 Challenge -- after a series of opponents who have challenged Arkansas in a variety of ways but in nowhere near the manner Illinois will.
Illinois spanked a short-handed and undersized Arkansas team 84-61 in Chicago last year, but Famutimi believes Saturday will be a different story.
"I think we're really ready," he said. "We're going to be much more competitive than last year because we have a complete team. We're going to go down there to Little Rock and put up a fight with them."
With the win against Tulsa, Arkansas has passed its two "test" games.
The Razorbacks raced to a 24-point first-half lead against Eastern Michigan to win the Paradise Jam on Nov. 22 and scored 21 points off 19 first-half turnovers against Tulsa (1-2).
Arkansas led 43-32 at halftime following some nice ball movement from Eric Ferguson to Ronnie Brewer to an open Dontell Jefferson for a 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
Arkansas widened its lead to 69-48 less than eight minutes into the second half during a run that was highlighted by a soaring alley-oop slam by Famutimi from Jefferson, a couple of baskets by 7-foot freshman center Steven Hill, 3-pointers by Famutimi and Ronnie Brewer and the 10-second violation in the backcourt.
"(Tulsa) is similar to what we'll see in the (Southeastern Conference)," Heath said. "I really feel like our team looked at Tulsa and respected them. They felt this would be a measuring stick game and we passed that test.
"Now we're getting as good a test as you can find in the country."
Arkansas showed off its balance yet again with four players in double figures (Thomas, 16, Brewer, 14, Famutimi and Ferguson, 11 each) and Hill scored a career-high 9 on 4 of 5 shooting. Hill also added a game-high 4 blocks.
The Razorbacks got 32 points in the paint and again had solid all-around performances from their post players. Freshman center Darian Townes had 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in an efficient 17 minutes.
"We're getting there," Townes said. "We passed Test One. We beat Tulsa with great energy. But now is the real deal on Saturday."
Heath wasn't happy his team allowed Tulsa to hit 53.2 percent (25 of 47) of its shots, but the 27 turnovers and 7 blocked shots added up to 34 lost possessions for the Hurricane.
"I was fuming because I'm looking at 50-some percent from the field on defense," Heath said of his reaction to the halftime stats. "It was crazy. We can't allow teams to shoot so well.
"I want to quit giving up so many lay-ups. We're getting deflections and steals and creating offense from our defense. That's exactly how we want to play."
Arkansas had forced an average of 18 turnovers in its first four games and Tulsa coach John Phillips was wary of playing his two freshmen point guards.
Neither Brett McDade or Deion James played until the game was out of hand in the second half while Arkansas was forcing Tulsa's experienced players like senior Jarius Glenn (6 turnovers), junior Seneca Collins (4 turnovers) and senior Kyle Blankenship (4 turnovers) into mistake after mistake.
Glenn found other ways to hurt Arkansas, scoring 30 points on 10 of 13 shooting.
Thomas got Arkansas started after making his second straight start. He scored eight straight points on a jumper, two free throws, a long 2-pointer and a polished baseline turnaround to put Arkansas ahead 11-10.
Glenn answered with a dunk to give the Golden Hurricane a 12-11 lead, but his throwdown would be the last Tulsa field goal attempt for the next three minutes as the Golden Hurricane turned it over on their next six possessions and Arkansas went on an 11-0 run keyed by two Ferguson 3-pointers and a 3-point play by Modica for a 22-12 lead.
The Hurricane answered with an 8-0 spurt despite two more turnovers thanks to missed free throws, missed shots and a couple of Arkansas turnovers. Eight Tulsa turnovers later, Arkansas built its lead back to 38-23 with less than three minutes to play in the first half.
Improving its defense, free-throw shooting and transition offense will be critical for Arkansas to have a chance at bursting onto the national scene with an ESPN televised win against Illinois on Saturday.
"That's going to be another big test for us," Jefferson said.
Arkansas Passes Another Test
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