With their season hanging in the balance, the Gamecocks’ first half shooting drought approached apocalyptic proportions. Against Goliath, it should have broken them — should have.
After a 3-pointer from freshman guard Rakym Felder, the Gamecocks would miss their next 11 shots.
They would not score again for more than six minutes.
Duke’s athletic interior play made it nearly impossible for the Gamecocks to find uncontested looks in the paint. Senior forward Amile Jefferson recorded five blocks in just the first half.
The Gamecocks instead looked to score from the perimeter, but went cold from behind the arc.
Against one of the most talented programs in the country, Duke boasts six former five-star recruits on their roster, the Gamecocks’ shooting woes should have been crippling. South Carolina missed 20 of its last 22 shots from the field to close out the half.
Still the Gamecocks went to the locker room trailing only 30-23. Even when it failed to develop any resemblance of offensive rhythm, South Carolina survived on the back of its disruptive, blue-collar defense. South Carolina recorded twice as many field goals as the Blue Devils and forced 13 turnovers in the half.
"You know, it's the toughest defense we've played against all year," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Very physical, actually the most physical game we've been in all year."
The law of averages would suggest shots would eventually start falling for the Gamecocks. They did.
After freshman forward Maik Kotsar missed a jumper on the Gamecocks’ first half attempt of the half, they rattled off seven consecutive baskets, anchored around a pair of 3-pointers from SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell.
The Gamecocks offensive tempo swelled as they challenged the Blue Devils by pushing the ball down court in transition. Chris Silva recorded a pair of vicious dunks on consecutive possessions.
Thornwell’s second 3-pointer in the stretch culminated the scoring blitz and forced Krzyzewski to call for a timeout. When South Carolina looked up, they were leading 42-41.
South Carolina’s scoring outburst persisted but foul-trouble did begin to haunt the Gamecocks down the stretch. The Blue Devils shot 27 for 29 at the line.
With 3:25 remaining sophomore guard PJ Dozier was charged with his fifth foul trying to break off an automatic basket by Duke’s Frank Jackson.
Felder helped compensate for Dozier’s absence, energizing the Gamecocks’ offense at the point and providing 15 points off the bench.
“He has been a spark off the bench for us all year,” said head coach Frank Martin. “We’ve won games because he comes in there and he's aggressive.”
Sindarius Thornwell paced all scorers with 24 points. Grayson Allen led the Blue Devils with 20.
South Carolina shot 71 percent from the field in the half and held on to an 88-81 lead.
The Gamecocks won 15 conference games in Frank Martin’s first three seasons at the helm. They endured 244 games between tournament appearances. Now they are Sweet 16 bound.
"For us to be able to play against a team like Duke and play so well on the big stage says a lot about the character of our team," Martin said.
The Gamecocks will face Baylor on March 24.
“We in it, so why not win it?” asked Thornwell. “Why not us?”