Newark prep star chases title with Duke

Lance Thomas has never been a numbers guy, at least not during his four years at Duke. His stat line for this season -- 4.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game -- is quite modest for a team co-captain.

But the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward is 40 minutes away from being a national champion, and that's all that matters to him now. "I'm very excited," said Thomas, when reached by phone from Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon. "Four years of hard work has paid off. I'm not looking back, I'm looking ahead."

Thomas, who was born in Brooklyn, was a McDonald's High School All-American coming out of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark. He was coveted by some of the most prominent programs in college basketball, including UConn, Florida and Arizona. But he chose another traditional power instead, Duke, with dreams of playing in Final Fours and winning national championships.

Things haven't exactly gone as planned. Thomas never developed into the scorer most people expected him to be -- his career-high came last season, when he averaged a meager 5.3 points per game. And his Blue Devils squads haven't fared much better. Duke got bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament his freshman year, in the second round his sophomore year, and in the Sweet 16 his junior year.

Thomas isn't concerned about any of that now. "This makes it all worthwhile," Thomas said. "You might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially during all those tough practices and grueling sprints. But now that we are in the moment, it's all worth it."

What Thomas has developed into is a top-notch defender and an outstanding leader. He's always hustling, diving for loose balls and chasing down errant shots, setting a great example for the rest of his teammates. He credits where he grew up with helping him be that kind of player.

"It made me a very tough and aggressive player, playing in the New York-New Jersey area against all those tough players," Thomas said. "It creates an edge -- you always have that edge. You want to be the toughest guy on the court, with the most energy and emotion."

True to form, Thomas didn't fill up the stat sheet in Duke's Final Four game vs. West Virginia on Saturday night -- he had just 2 points and 2 rebounds in 32 minutes of action. But he did have 7 points and 9 rebounds in Duke's regional final win over Baylor -- including a pivotal offensive rebound late in the game, which set up the 3-pointer that gave Duke the lead for good.

Now, finally, Thomas is where he thought he'd be all along -- playing on a Monday night in April, for all the marbles.

"It would mean the world to me," Thomas said. "My last game is for the national championship. It doesn't get any better than that."

Kieran Darcy covers college sports for ESPNNewYork.com. He can be reached at kieran.d.darcy@espn.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.