JOHN RIORDAN: JOHN RIORDAN: Thornton bids to end college career on a high note

It’s all well and good for the rest of us but basketballers such as Dubliner Hannah Thornton must view ‘March Madness’ with a fair degree of dread.

The US College Basketball end-of-season hootenanny which occupies minds from the Oval Office on down is the be-all and end-all for third level institutions across the country and it leaves behind a trail of frustration and tears which is more than a match for the various glories.

Its popularity is such that it represents a curse for workplace productivity although not many company executives will complain about their employees ducking out early — every big shot imaginable will probably be at a sportsbar somewhere too, soaking up the relentless drama that defines the month.

Its start point is debatable but by the time we get to the Final Four in mid-April, there will probably have been record amounts of illegal gambling on students whose hearts shatter for all to see on national television.

Part of the reason there is such intense emotion on display is that many of these players are burdened by multiple layers of all-or-nothing pressure: just one loss could mean the end of a career for anyone in their final year of studies and without any prospects in the professional game.

Nothing cuts as ruthlessly as a sudden exit and for the lower level outfits whose chances of making it to the 68-team national tournament are all the slimmer, one poor performance could cause everything to flame out before it even gets a chance to spark.

One such student for whom everything is on the line is Thornton. Her team, the University of Northern Colorado, begin their Big Sky Championship campaign later this evening in Montana with a quarter-final showdown against Southern Utah. The reward for victory is another do-or-die event within 48 hours. The pressure will be accentuated by scars from a similar situation last season.

Thornton recalled: “We lost to Idaho State by three points in the Big Sky Championship (final). We missed out on going to the NCAA Tournament by three points. It was sickening, really heartbreaking in the end.

“It’s a feeling I’ll never ever forget. We’ve beaten them twice this season so hopefully that’s a sign that we can go one step further. We don’t ever want to feel like that again. We have that confidence that we know we can do it but we don’t want to jinx anything.”

A “proud northsider” from Clontarf, Thornton attended Holy Faith Secondary School where she captained the basketball team and was player of the year multiple times.

That’s when her father decided to see how far his daughter could take her talents by firing out DVDs of her performances for the Irish team to colleges in the US. She ended up accepting an offer to play at a small college in the rural west of Kansas, ignoring the playful jibes of her mother who thought she’d never last in such isolation, far away from decent shopping and the bright lights of her hometown.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she recalls laughing about the memory of Colby.

“I looked it up on Google Maps and it was just fields of nothingness. A lot different to Dublin. But I thought about it and I realised this was my only real opportunity and I’d regret it if I didn’t go for it.”

But she could never have known how soon her resolve would be further tested. A concussion during a season opener followed by an allergic reaction to medication destroyed the first half of her Freshman season. While she had the chance to ‘redshirt’, an option taken by many a student athlete if they feel injury will prevent them getting the most out of their scholarship, instead, she decided to return to action when she was fit, citing concerns for her team-mates and love of the game. When she completed her two years there, she opted to extend her career almost 300 miles away at Northern Colorado, immediately endeavouring to acclimatise to the improved standard around her.

“It was a lot more skilful, patience on the court and running plays. I had to adjust. The team really helped me.”

And now she has the chance to round off her career with a title before finishing her studies.

“We know we are the same as everybody in our conference and can beat them all on a good day. We have confidence in each other. We know the person to the right and to the left of us is good enough to help us win. That’s what separates us from other teams. If the cards fall right, I hope we can do it.”

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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