- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- This is a story about what happens next.
Ever since Sophocles started jotting down lines for his characters, great stories have often revolved around the inevitable tumble awaiting tragic heroes. And each year, the NCAA Tournament serves as a veritable festival of unlikely heroes seizing momentary glory, only to suffer defeats made all the more difficult by their own successes.
Minus the wailing chorus in the background, Shona Thorburn's postseason story was as dramatic and ultimately unfortunate enough as anything that befell the ancients. The senior guard led Utah on a mesmerizing postseason run, emerging from teammate Kim Smith's shadow and arguably playing better than anyone else in the bracket during the first two rounds.
Without Thorburn's passing, scoring and leadership, the Utes wouldn't have rallied for wins against Middle Tennessee in the first round and Arizona State in the second. Against the Blue Raiders, Thorburn had seemingly a career outing with 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Only she went out and topped that performance against the Sun Devils in the very next game, posting 24 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
After a win against Boston College in the Sweet 16, the stage was set for Thorburn and the Utes to earn one of the more unlikely Final Four berths in tournament history if they could knock off ACC heavyweight Maryland in the regional final in Albuquerque.
But with little time remaining in the first half of the game against the Terrapins, Utah's hero took a literal tumble that set in motion a chain of events worthy of the stage.
Thorburn severely sprained her ankle on a play near the end of the first half and was given a piggy back ride by a team official to the locker room. She returned to the court in obvious pain in the second half and ultimately played all but five minutes of the game. And as if someone was writing the game's script, it was Thorburn on the free-throw line for two shots with her team trailing by a point and just seven seconds left in regulation. Just 2-for-12 from the floor when she stepped to the line, she missed the first shot before tying the score with her second shot.
In reality, Thorburn's ability to regroup and hit the second free throw gave her team another shot at victory in overtime, but the missed opportunity gained national attention after Maryland seized momentum and raced to a 75-65 win in the extra period.
After starring in relative obscurity for four years at Utah and drawing only moderate attention for her brilliance in the opening two rounds, Thorburn found herself featured on national sports broadcasts as they replayed images of her choking back tears in a press conference while dutifully describing the feeling of missing one of "the two biggest free throws of my life" just minutes earlier.
And so the curtain came down on Thorburn's story, her brief moment in the spotlight ended like so many others who dared to challenge the odds in the NCAA Tournament.
Only the play isn't over.
When fans turn off the television after a big game and start pondering the bills to be paid or the meeting to attend the next day, it's easy to forget that even those at the heart of the story move on as well.
And one act isn't about to turn Thorburn into a tragic hero.
"I'm kind of unknown," Thorburn said Wednesday, tears and jersey replaced by a nervous smile and a stylish suit as she sat behind the microphone in another press conference. The Minnesota Lynx had just selected Thorburn with the No. 7 pick in the first round of the WNBA draft, ahead of her teammate Smith and such college luminaries as Ann Strother and Shanna Zolman.
"So I think people are maybe a little surprised, and there may be a few question marks," she continued. "But I'm excited to go to Minnesota, I'm excited to play for Suzie McConnell-Serio. She was a great point guard when she played, and I really think I can learn a lot from her quickly."
A high-profile job in the WNBA is a development that even Thorburn wasn't expecting until recently.
"Every basketball player dreams about making it to the highest level, and this is obviously the highest level," she said while standing in a corridor backstage at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center after her initial introduction. "But it really wasn't until this year that I thought I had a chance."
A chance likely greatly enhanced by Thorburn's strong showing in the NCAA Tournament, and even by the class and dignity she showed in defeat.
Wednesday's selection marks a new beginning for the guard from Hamilton, Ontario, but at the risk of straying into pop lyrics, every beginning comes from some other beginning's end. And Thorburn knows she always will be linked in some way to that free throw in Albuquerque.
"Unfortunately, I'm still kind of reliving it, because I'm known as the girl who missed the free throw against Maryland," Thorburn said about the postseason. "So I've had people come up to me and be like, 'Oh, you're that one.' It's tough; it's still there, but it's a 40-minute game and I understand that. It's a team game, and I understand that."
And in overcoming that adversity, Thorburn might have earned more fans than she ever did while becoming Utah's all-time leader in assists.
"I got e-mails and messages, and they sent my coaches stuff: 'Keep your head up,' 'Proud of you, proud of what you accomplished.' 'I didn't know you guys until I saw your game against Maryland.' 'I just wanted to tell you how you did a great job and you spoke well.'
"It was overwhelming. It was so encouraging and hard at the same time. It brought a tear to my eye every single time I read a new e-mail, which was a lot!"
It's no surprise the fans reached out to Thorburn after she helped lead the program to new heights.
"We got somewhere no other Utah team has been, somewhere no other Mountain West team has been," she said with conviction. "And people notice. It was fun doing it, and we had a blast. And that's what it's all about."
It's a remarkable perspective considering she had less than two weeks between hugging her teammates and shaking hands on stage with WNBA commissioner Donna Orender. Any mental wounds appear to have healed even before her ankle could do the same (although after missing the pre-draft camp to rest, she said the ankle was "feeling great" and wouldn't stop her from beginning workouts next week).
And now Thorburn, who says she once pestered her coach on a daily basis to recruit a true point guard when confronted with moving to the position, finds herself the second point guard off the board in the draft, charged with distributing the ball to a lineup that includes Seimone Augustus, Nicole Ohlde, Svetlana Abrosimova and Vanessa Hayden.
The NCAA Tournament offers stories like almost no other sporting event, with so much disappointment accompanying the almost inevitable conclusion when 64 teams chase one goal. But as Shona Thorburn stood on stage in Boston on Wednesday afternoon, savoring an accomplishment built on a lifetime of work, she offered a visible reminder that there is only one final curtain in life.
There will be more great performances and more tears, more successes and more failures. Simply, there will be more.
"I'm excited to start the next phase of my basketball career," Thorburn said. "I really am. And I'm ready to get down to business and start working toward that."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
A week and a half ago, Shona Thorburn's college career came to an end. And though she wasn't sure she'd get the chance, the Utah star looks forward to starting her pro career.