Shakayla Thomas refuses free pass

A missed free throw that cost her team in a playoff game as a sophomore gives Shakayla Thomas extra motivation. Courtesy Brian Schoenhals

Rising senior Shakayla Thomas has scored 3,105 points in her career at Sylacauga (Ala.) High School. But when asked which play she remembers most, she mentions three points that she didn't get.

At the end of her sophomore year, Sylacauga was down 58-55 in a playoff game when Thomas was fouled on a 3-pointer as time expired. She missed the first free throw, giving Tuscaloosa Central the victory in an AHSAA Class 5A Central Regional game.

"Game over," Thomas said. "Season over."

That miss went through Thomas's head every time she stepped to the line this past season.

"That's my motivation, to stay focused and do what's right," Thomas said. "You need some kind of motivation, so that's mine. I don't want to let the team down again."

To help her continue to improve, Thomas said she prefers to focus on the negatives. There haven't been many.

The 6-foot wing, 29th in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2014 class, averaged 31.9 points and 14.5 rebounds as a junior. She had 34 points and 20 rebounds when Sylacauga avenged that previous defeat by beating Central 62-53 in this year's state playoffs, and then poured in 43 in a 68-66 season-ending loss to Valley (Ala.).

"She has a will to score," Sylacauga coach Derrick Crawford said.

"She's not one of those kids that's going to isolate herself in one spot. She creates by just moving and slashing and she works so hard on the offensive end that she'll expose you if you're taking a break guarding her."

Crawford estimated that half of her points come off the defensive end, when she gets a rebound or steal and then converts in transition.

Crawford saw Thomas' talent when she exploded off the floor and touched the glass during tryouts in sixth grade. He started her on varsity in the seventh grade, when she scored 319 points, and she has led the team in scoring every year since then.

But Thomas isn't just a scorer -- she's also a rebounding machine. In a state that has produced talent like Gwen Jackson and Vickie Orr, Thomas' 2,229 career rebounds are an Alabama prep record.

By the eighth grade, she already had a scholarship offer from Auburn.

By her sophomore year, when she averaged 33 points, 16 rebounds and 5 assists and was named the Class 5A state player of the year, offers had come in from schools such as Baylor, Kentucky, Maryland and Florida State.

Thomas, who has taken an unofficial visit to South Carolina, said the things she's looking for in a school are academics and coaches who are willing to make her better.

"I want to play the wing but I'll play wherever they put me because I can play any position," Thomas said.

Thomas' peers have voted her a team captain each of the past three seasons, which Crawford said is because of how hard she works.

"I've had her for five years and she hasn't missed a single practice," Crawford said. "That tells you a lot about her right there. That's what I tell college recruiters when they come around: I haven't had a single day's problem out of her. She accepts hard coaching, and she goes out every day to try and be the best."

Though she has never missed a practice, Thomas sat out the first eight games of her sophomore year for academic reasons. In her first game back, she recorded 38 points and 19 rebounds.

"I had to make an entrance, you know," Thomas said. "It was killing me [to sit out], so I was like, 'When I come back, I'm going to go off.'"

The first 18 points came in her first quarter on the court.

"I turned around to my assistant coach and I just said, 'Oh my God,'" Crawford said. "She took over that ballgame and at that moment she was at star status for me, because she was playing a pretty good basketball team and she was taking it to them."

Her star level may increase soon. Crawford said that Thomas has been dunking for the past two months and could pull one off in a game next season.

Thomas said her biggest goal as a senior is to win a state championship. Individually, she wants to get stronger and develop a good jump shot. If that happens, the scoreboard operators in central Alabama will get even more of a workout.

"If she could develop a consistent outside presence," Crawford said, "then the sky will be the limit for her to score even more points."