Jackson native leads Pine Bluff Lady Lions to SWAC championship game

Coach Thornton confers on the sideline during a Golden Lady Lions basketball game.
Coach Thornton confers on the sideline during a Golden Lady Lions basketball game.(Special to WLBT)
Published: Mar. 11, 2023 at 10:12 AM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - When Dawn Thornton was introduced as head coach of the Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lady Lions, she said she wanted to get the program to national prominence.

On Saturday, the Jackson native is one game away from achieving that goal, leading the women’s basketball squad to its first-ever appearance in the SWAC Tournament Championship Game.

If the Lady Lions take home that crown, they’re likely bound for the NCAA Tournament.

“I said that in my press conference in May 2019. If I have an opportunity, I will take this program to a national platform on a national stage,” she said. “And that’s something that I really, truly hang my hat on.”

Getting to Saturday’s final hasn’t been easy.

Pine Bluff came into the tournament as the No. 7 seed and immediately faced off against Alabama A&M, in the No. 2 slot.

After stunning the Lady Bulldogs, Pine Bluff knocked off the No. 3 seed, Alabama State, in the semis.

“One thing that we were really intentional about was recruiting winners and having players on our roster who were capable of winning and getting it done,” Thornton said. “And I think that’s the reason we had an opportunity to advance in the tournament.”

She credited one player, in particular, for the Lady Lions’ success.

“We have a young lady that’s won a national championship, Tia Morgan, and definitely being able to have her on the floor for us has been great,” she continued. “So, you know, it’s not uncharted waters for them either.”

Prior to joining Pine Bluff, Thornton herself was no stranger to success on the court.

In 2014, the “Diva Coach” led Prairie View A&M to its fourth SWAC Tournament title in as many years, as well as a berth in that year’s NCAA tourney.

As a senior at Jackson State University nearly a decade before, she was part of Lady Tigers squads that won back-to-back regular season SWAC titles.

Thornton graduated from JSU in 2005 with a bachelor’s in sociology and in 2018 with a master’s in sports administration and coaching.

She picked up the sport in the seventh grade, but admittedly says basketball wasn’t her first choice.

“I actually thought I wanted to dance... I was doing that in the fifth and sixth grade, and then I hit a growth spurt... So, my dad’s like, ‘You’re tall, and I’m going to put a ball in your hand,’” she said. “‘You can dance... but you’re going to have to dance after basketball.’”

Thornton is the daughter of District 70 Rep. Bo Brown and wife Imelda. She is the sister of Hinds County District 1 Election Commissioner Kidada Brown.

Bo Brown says his daughter would often go with him when he worked out at the YMCA on Fortification Street, where several great basketball players practiced during their younger days.

“I told her to go in there and shoot free throws and every time she made one, I’d give her a dollar,” he said. “She liked to have broke me.”

At Callaway High, she played under coaches Maxine Johnson and Harriet Speech. She credits those ladies for instilling in her a love of the sport and a love of coaching.

“[They’re] the reason I’m coaching basketball today. They’ve been my biggest inspiration,” she said.

Thornton also credits her family, saying they gave her the spirit needed to be competitive on the court and on the sidelines.

“In my house, it’s always been the grind. You have to put the work in to be able to accomplish the things that you need to accomplish,” she said. “And as a family, we do it together. Even when my sister was running for election commissioner, in between basketball, I was there with her.”

After high school, Thornton played at Jackson State University. With a family that she said “bleeds” blue and white, donning a Lady Tigers uniform was a forgone conclusion.

“That’s who we are,” she said. “You grow up in Jackson, Mississippi, you know you’re going to Jackson State.”

Today, Thornton says she still pulls for the Tigers in almost every they do, women’s basketball being a rare exception.

“It has been kind of bittersweet for me since I graduated, because I’ve always kind of been on the opposite end. I coached six years at Prairie View and now being at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, I’ve always had to coach against my alma mater,” she said. “So, I’m always rooting for them in everything else that they’re present in.”

Thornton is married to Cedric Thornton, a defensive coordinator at Grambling State University. Together, they have one son, Camden.

Dawn Brown Thornton and her son, Camden.
Dawn Brown Thornton and her son, Camden.(Special to WLBT)

It was talking to her husband that helped her decide to take the position at Pine Bluff. At the time, she was an assistant at Jacksonville University, having lost her job at Prairie View a few years earlier for enforcing a school rule that allegedly violated Title IX, USA Today Sports reported.

She knew the job would be a challenge, but it was one she wanted to take on.

“I felt like this was an opportunity for me to reestablish myself as a head coach,” Thorton said. “I wanted to make history. I wanted to take a program that’s never been tapped into - they’ve never won a championship on the women’s basketball side since they’ve been Division I... That’s the reason I took the job.”

In just a few hours, Thornton and the Lady Lions could make history again, when they face off against the Southern University Jaguars.

“These young women have put in countless hours of hard work and dedication to our program. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve definitely done a phenomenal job,” she said. “When we left Arkansas on Monday, there was not a doubt in my mind that this team was focused on what they wanted to accomplish. So, I’m proud of them and celebrating them. But we have one more assignment to take care of.”

The SWAC Tournament Championship Game is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday.

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