CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -Quentin Thomas was an overwhelmed freshman who watched from the bench as North Carolina won the national championship in 2005. Stuck behind soon-to-be NBA point guard Raymond Felton, Thomas played just one minute in the final.
In the two years that followed, Thomas battled foot injuries while younger players such as Bobby Frasor and Ty Lawson passed him on the Tar Heels' depth chart in what was becoming a career full of frustration.
Yet things have changed dramatically in the past month. The senior kept the fast-moving offense running after Lawson and Frasor were lost to injuries. He also has been a part of more wins than any player in program history and is the only one left from the '05 title run, experience that could prove invaluable at this weekend's Final Four.
``There's no comparison,'' Thomas said Tuesday of his confidence from 2005 to now. ``I've been through everything. To be a part of a national championship team was just like, 'Wow.' But now, to be able to go back and go through the heartaches and pains and all the good times and have already been to a national championship, that's a great feeling. And my confidence is sky high right now.''
While it would have been hard to believe weeks ago, Thomas' play has been one of the biggest reasons why the Tar Heels (36-2) have won 15 straight games to earn a matchup with Kansas. North Carolina lost Frasor, a junior who could play either guard spot, to a season-ending knee injury in December. Then the Tar Heels lost Lawson to a sprained left ankle in the early minutes at Florida State on Feb. 3.
Thomas stepped in and had nine points, six assists and five rebounds in 36 minutes to help North Carolina take an 84-73 overtime win. Lawson, the speedy sophomore who powers the Tar Heels' attack, missed the next six games, thrusting Thomas into the lineup.
Thomas, who had a career average of 1.2 points and 1.1 assists coming into the year, responded. In the seven-game stretch that began at Florida State, Thomas averaged 7.4 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 59 percent in nearly 33 minutes a game. And with every basket or assist, Thomas was greeted by unified calls of ``Q!'' coming from the Smith Center fans.
``He used to always play like that in practice,'' Lawson said. ``It was just in games he'd come out and have a lot of turnovers. ... That's what we were all waiting for. I always knew Quentin had it in him.''
Thomas' biggest performance in that stretch came in his second start. He hit a driving shot to force the first overtime and two free throws to force the second and North Carolina rallied from 11 down in the final 3 minutes of regulation and beat Clemson 103-93.
``After that game, it let me know that, you're meant to be here,'' Thomas said.
Lawson has since returned to the starting lineup, but Thomas - notably more confident - has continued to produce off the bench. It allowed coach Roy Williams to spell Lawson just enough against Louisville's fullcourt pressure in the regional final to keep him fresh down the stretch.
Williams has been eager to praise Thomas, whose career was hindered by knee surgeries before his freshman and senior seasons. He also missed 12 games with a stress fracture in his left foot in his sophomore and junior years.
``It's been one of the most satisfying things you could possibly have happen,'' Williams said. ``Here's a kid who had some injuries and had some setbacks or had some opportunities and had some poor play. He was never able to step forward. Then all of a sudden, it was a time period where it wasn't just the coaching staff wanted him to do it. We absolutely needed him to do well. And he said, 'OK, I'm going to do this.'''
Thomas, an Oakland, Calif., native, said he never considered transferring even as he played sparingly. He wanted to make it work in Chapel Hill instead of trying to fit in with a new school, coach and players. The payoff - getting back to the Final Four with a team that hasn't been there before - has been satisfying.
``Ever since I've been little, I've always been humble,'' he said. ``I think if you put your heart in as far as the team concept, everything else will take care of itself when it comes to being an individual.''

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