Return Of The ‘Manimal'

ATLANTA — Too far away to hear his coach's compliments, Charles Thomas repeatedly jumped up and down in the Arkansas locker room, screaming as loud as he could.

A few feet outside of the raucous Georgia Dome dressing room, Stan Heath looked at his junior forward Saturday afternoon, let out a gaping smile and praised him. Just after finishing his tribute, several minutes after Arkansas' 81-72 victory over Mississippi State, Heath felt a large hand grip his head. It was Thomas, undoubtedly Saturday's most valuable Razorback, and the 6-foot-8 native of Jackson, Miss., pulled Heath's head close to him and kissed it. That gesture forced Heath to keep talking. "He earned his nickname back," Heath said. "He was the ‘Manimal' out there again. It was an incredible effort, and we fed off him from the start." Heath wasn't alone Saturday. Thomas' teammates were all referring to him by his nickname after his 18-point, 18-rebound performance fueled their advancement to today's Southeastern Conference Tournament title game. Thomas was the catalyst for the Hogs, who now are one victory from becoming the third team to win an SEC Tournament after playing in the opening round. "Man, he was just amazing," Arkansas forward Darian Townes said. "18 and 18. That's NBA stats right there." Throughout the month of February, Thomas couldn't even produce SEC-worthy stats, let alone those of professional basketball players. During Arkansas' victory at Alabama on Jan. 27, Richard Hendrix fouled Thomas hard on a drive to the basket. Thomas' right shoulder was partially dislocated when he crashed to the floor. The injury forced Thomas to sit out Arkansas' loss to Kentucky and, in the month that followed, Thomas just didn't look the same. He was shy. He was tentative. He was hesitant. Leading into the SEC Tournament, Thomas failed to score in double figures in four consecutive games. He closed out the regular season with a two-point effort at Vanderbilt. He was, simply put, not the ‘Manimal.' "Honestly, it was hard," Thomas said. "My shoulder is not really healed. You have down times. You get tired. You lose focus. But my team stuck with me." Thomas rewarded the Hogs' trust in him when he thoroughly dominated Charles Rhodes, Mississippi State's standout post player and Thomas' friend and AAU teammate. Rhodes finished without a field goal and scored just eight points, all on free throws. Meanwhile, on the offensive end, Thomas was "a beast," as Sonny Weems described. In the first half, Thomas tallied 10 points and snagged nine rebounds. Thomas opened his scoring with a hard-fought three-point play. He then swished an 18-footer, dropped in a reverse layup, threaded a perfect backdoor pass to Weems for a layup and converted three more free throws. After halftime, Thomas was equally dominant. He corralled four more offensive rebounds, turning three of them into putback points. His eight total rebounds in the second half gave him a career-high, and he also scored on a difficult left-handed layup. Those points were all beneficial. But Thomas' consistent intensity sparked Arkansas far more. "Let's be honest," Weems said. "He didn't get the nickname the ‘Manimal' for no reason."

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