UConn senior guard Mel Thomas, the Huskies' top three-point and free-throw shooter and their leader in minutes and floor burns, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn lateral meniscus in her right knee Tuesday night at Syracuse and will miss the rest of her final season.
The injuries were revealed by an MRI taken Wednesday after the top-ranked Huskies returned from their 65-59 victory at the Carrier Dome.
Thomas, who had played all 38 minutes, fell along the baseline near the UConn bench with just over 2 minutes left and couldn't put pressure on her leg.
"My initial reaction was, 'Not again,' " said guard Renee Montgomery, alluding to the knee injury that ended Kalana Greene's season Dec. 17. "And then I started to hope it wasn't serious."
Thomas was on crutches when the team left the Dome.
"I didn't even see what happened," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Tuesday. "I don't know whether she stepped on her foot or jammed the knee or something. It just looked like she hit it and fell down. It just happened so quickly."
Auriemma could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Thomas was UConn's leading scorer (15 points) in her final game, shooting 4 of 8 (3 of 7 from three-point range) with six rebounds and two assists. She had sprained her ankle in UConn's previous game at Syracuse two seasons ago, missing two games. But she had played in 59 straight since.
Thomas was third on the team this season at 10.4 points a game, hit 35 of 89 three-pointers (39.3 percent) and had 44 assists against 16 turnovers.
The Huskies (16-0, 4-0 Big East) play Cincinnati Saturday at the XL Center before Monday's showdown with No. 3 North Carolina (16-1) at Gampel Pavilion.
If the Huskies go on to win their sixth national championship they will do so without two of their most versatile players in Greene and Thomas.
Senior guard Ketia Swanier made her first start of the season Tuesday. Auriemma will be forced to dip deeper into his guard depth, likely relying more on sophomore Meghan Gardler and freshman Lorin Dixon. It's unlikely either is ready to replicate what Thomas contributed. Gardler and Dixon combined for 17 minutes at Syracuse and have combined for 75 points this season.
The 5-foot-9 Thomas, who led Cincinnati's Mount Notre Dame High to a 28-0 record and Division I state championship as a senior, ends her career with 224 three-pointers, fourth in program history.
Earlier this season, she became the 29th UConn player to score 1,000 points (1,098). She was one of the program's most accurate free-throw shooters (142 of 174, 81.6 percent), hitting all 17 attempts this season.
She spent the summer playing for the gold medal-winning U.S. Pan American Games team in Brazil - along with teammate Charde Houston - and had impressed Auriemma with her improved defense and her hustle. A business major, she had a 3.97 grade point average in the fall.
While the Bearcats don't figure to test UConn, the Tar Heels, who average 90.6 points, certainly will and they likely learned something from Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman's game plan.
"I just knew that we had some matchups we could take advantage of off the bounce," Hillsman said. "We tried to isolate them, spread them out a little, not let them settle into the lane where they block shots."
Syracuse had UConn reeling. The Orange opened three nine-point leads in the first half and began the second half by building another (43-34) with 18:03 left.
"It was the first game we played all year where we didn't match up the way I wanted us to match up," Auriemma said Tuesday.
Eventually, UConn prevailed.
"Two things need to happen in order for upsets to occur," Auriemma said. "The team that's supposed to win needs to play badly. And the team that is trying to pull off the upset has to play a perfect game, has to be great. It almost happened."
Freshman Maya Moore, who didn't score in the first half, had 11 of UConn's first 15 points in the second to start a rally that resulted in UConn's tense win.
"We shouldn't need to fall behind by four at the half or have something bad happen to us before we get fired up," Montgomery said. "That was the most disappointing thing for the coach."
Without Thomas, UConn will need to rely on a post offense suddenly gone dry. Brittany Hunter did not play Tuesday because of her sore right knee. And after four straight double-doubles, center Tina Charles got in foul trouble and had a tough night, with six points and five turnovers in 16 minutes.
"Tina? Other than missed lay-ups, not getting any rebounds and not guarding anybody, I thought she did pretty good," Auriemma said. "We've got to get some consistent scoring in the post. We've gotten away from that the last two games. We've become more of a jump shooting team. I'm not sure what's going on in there, why we're not able to establish ourselves."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun