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Apr 17, 2020

Tiger Talk: Kobi Thornton’s Legacy

By: Cole Little

The echo of the public address announcer excitedly shouting, “Kobi!” into the microphone in the wake of a Kobi Thornton jumper was a fixture of Clemson women’s basketball games at Littlejohn Coliseum for the past four seasons. Sadly, Tiger fans have heard the last of the crowd-pleasing exclamation, as Thornton’s college career recently came to an end at the ACC Tournament. The senior power forward certainly went out with a bang, though, as she scored a career-high 27 points in Clemson’s first-round win in Greensboro, N.C., and nearly helped the Tigers pull off an upset in the second round at Greensboro Coliseum.

Although Thornton’s tenure in Clemson orange and regalia has come to a close with the expiration of her collegiate eligibility, that does not mean that Thornton’s Clemson legacy expired, too. Sure, Thornton will not be suiting up for Head Coach Amanda Butler’s squad next season. However, the impact that Thornton had on the Clemson program over the course of the last four years was so pronounced that it certainly is not out of the question to assume that the cavernous echoes of Thornton’s given name will live on in spirit when the Tigers resume play at Littlejohn Coliseum this coming fall.

Thornton initially committed to the Tigers as a prized recruit, as she was rated as the No. 87 player in the recruiting class of 2016 by ESPN, and she lived up to the billing by putting together one of the most well-rounded careers in the history of the Clemson program. One could argue that Thornton’s college tenure was rather underrated, but the humble, soft-spoken Thornton probably liked it that way. At 6 feet 2 inches tall with an impressive basketball skill set and a fair share of noteworthy athletic intangibles, Thornton definitely jumps off the page as a big-time playmaker, and she was just that while donning a Clemson jersey.

The 2016-17 season saw Thornton carve out her place in the Clemson rotation, as she proved to be one of the Tigers’ best two-way players en route to earning a spot on the ACC All-Freshman Team. Thornton proceeded to establish herself as one the Tigers’ leaders when she became a regular starter during the 2017-18 season. The offseason that followed saw the Clemson program experience wholesale changes, including an entirely new coaching staff coming into the fray. For any team going through significant transitions like that, a veteran leader is needed to help the other players remain focused and on course, and, yet again, Thornton did just that.

Stepping up and making the most of her junior year, Thornton was a major catalyst for a Clemson team that reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years. Thornton hit the ground running under the leadership of Butler in her first season on the job, and the Clemson program effectively rejuvenated itself and reached the second round of March Madness because of it. Starting all 33 games of the 2018-19 season and scoring in double figures in 25 of those contests, Thornton was named a second-team All-ACC performer for her efforts. She also received the great honor of being invited to take part in the 2019 U.S. Pan American Games Trials the ensuing summer, which was an invitation that Thornton happily accepted.

In the wake of becoming Clemson’s first All-ACC representative since 2010 as a junior, Thornton continued to play at a high level for the Tigers in her senior campaign. This season, Thornton was one of just two seniors on a roster containing several incoming freshmen and transfers, and she led the charge for the Tigers from start to finish, serving as the focal point of Clemson’s schematics on both ends of the floor. The power forward entered the season as one of only 15 players in Clemson history to have tallied 1,000 career points and 500 career rebounds, but Thornton’s notable statistical achievements did not end there. Thornton was the Tigers’ leading scorer and shot blocker and second-leading rebounder for the 2019-20 slate, and she climbed the leaderboards in several statistical categories along the way. Finishing her career with 1,440 points, 772 rebounds and 143 blocks, Thornton ranks 11th in points, sixth in rebounds and third in blocks on Clemson’s all-time leaderboards for those categories. She is also one of two players in Clemson history to finish with 1,400 points, 700 rebounds and 100 blocks the other being Clemson and ACC legend Barbara Kennedy-Dixon.

Better yet, Thornton came through with one of the most dominant postseason performances in program history in the penultimate game of her storied career. With her senior season on the line, Thornton was magical on the evening of Wednesday, March 4. No. 14 seed Clemson squared off against No. 11 seed Miami in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, and Thornton propelled the Tigers to an upset victory by recording a career-high 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting. She also went 2-for-2 at the free throw line and hauled in a team-high seven rebounds, putting on a show in the process of leading Clemson to a 71-56 victory over the Hurricanes.

“This win was very fun,” Thornton said in her postgame press conference. “Coming into this tournament, we had a 0-on-0 mindset. We were hungry, we were starving, we wanted to win and we did whatever it took to win.”

Thornton was especially dominant in the first quarter, when she scored 11 points and sank several impressive shots, including a one-footed jumper from the elbow and her second 3-pointer of the season. She went on to step up in critical late-game moments, enabling Clemson to fend off Miami and pull away from the Hurricanes down the stretch, thus living to fight another day.

“Kobi’s response is 100 percent about us and who we want to be,” Butler said of her senior leader following the win over Miami.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, their season concluded the following night, when the sixth-seeded Boston College Eagles downed Clemson 85-73 in the second round of the ACC Tournament. In typical Thornton fashion, the power forward played as hard as she could up until the bitter end, which saw her foul out with under a minute to play and the Tigers on the verge of being sent home. That resulted in a moving scene of Thornton being applauded and embraced by her coaches and teammates as she walked to her seat on the bench for the final time as a Tiger.

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Emblematic of what Thornton embodied as a competitor throughout her Clemson tenure, continuing to battle and fouling out in the final minute of a game that was basically out of reach for the Tigers was perfectly fitting of how Thornton will be remembered in Tigertown. Always letting her play do the talking, the calm, collected Clemson superstar will long be remembered as one of the greatest, most impactful players in the history of the Clemson program. From her stoic leadership and poise on and off the court to her bevy of memorable performances in important games, Thornton built a legacy for herself that will live on inside Littlejohn Coliseum for years to come. And the aforementioned cries of “Kobi!” are certain to be echoed by the continued commitment to leadership and winning that the Clemson program will carry on, keeping the Kobi Thornton legacy alive every step of the way.

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