The former Brunell player from Cork city — who is in her sophomore year on a basketball scholarship at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut — helped defeat fourth seed Miami 85-78 on Monday in Florida.
It was their second upset in just 48 hours, and Thornton and Quinnipiac are quickly becoming the fans’ favourites given their underdog winning streak.
The team, coached by Tricia Fabbri, are 29-6 for the season, and they will bid to continue their Cinderella run when they face the number one seeded South Carolina in the Stockton, California, on Saturday at 1pm (8pm Irish time).
Thornton featured throughout Monday’s game in which the Bobcats hit an incredible 15 three-pointers — the second most in NCAA finals history in a single game — to shock favourites Miami.
The win makes Quinnipiac the fourth 12th seed in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history to advance to the Sweet 16 — and Thornton the first Irish player to do so — joining BYU in 2014, Kansas in 2013 and San Francisco in 1996.
In addition, Quinnipiac have become the fourth team in history to defeat a No. 5 and No. 4 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
Among those keeping a close eye on Thornton Stateside is former WNBA player and Ireland’s greatest ever export in the sport, Susan Moran from Tullamore, Offaly.
“It’s really great to see a mid-major team like Quinnipiac getting to the Sweet 16, and it’s better again to see an Irish player on the roster,” said Moran, who is now in her fourth season as an associate head coach with St Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, where she herself played on scholarship, before turning professional with WNBA side New York Liberty.
Moran’s squad reached the first and second rounds of the NCAA Championships before, but they never proceeded to the Sweet 16.
Other former Irish basketball stars to play Division 1 basketball, including Michelle Fahy (Galway), who was on scholarship with Iona, Orla O’Reilly (Cork) who attended Binghamton, and Clodagh Scannell (Cork), who attended Boston University, have never even reached the last 32 of the tournament.
Before knocking out fourth seed Miami on Monday, Quinnipiac knocked fifth-seeded Marquette out of the tournament last Saturday with a 68-65 win. It was just the first NCAA Tournament victory for Quinnipiac (29-6) in university’s history.
Even the opposing coach, Miami’s Katie Meier was full of praise for Quinnipiac’s impressive display Monday.
“They were just really special and I’m not surprised by it. They were very, very special. What a moment for them. They’re going to have a lot of people on their bandwagon if they continue to play like that, because that was really special,” Meier said.
Thornton’s father, who was present for his daughter’s display against Marquette last Saturday and Monday’s win over Miami, will return to Ireland today, before flying back to the United States with his wife tomorrow to witness their daughter take on South Carolina in California on Saturday.
The Gamecocks barely escaped the second round with a win over Arizona State, and the team may be without guard Allisha Gray, who injured her knee Sunday.
South Carolina is already missing Alaina Coates, a star centre who injured her ankle before the tournament began.
The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 Stateside.