UN-FOUR-GETTABLE: Gamecocks advance to Final Four for first time ever
South Carolina’s longest NCAA tournament run in program history isn’t over yet.
After a 77-70 win over No. 4 Florida at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Gamecocks will advance to the Final Four for the first time ever.
"Just unbelievably, just a surreal moment," coach Frank Martin said. "You focus in on chasing young kids around, hoping that they grow up and believe and you end up with guys like these guys right next to me and their teammates that have the courage to come back every day and do more. And just — I'm just out of words. Out of words. Just extremely proud of these guys right next to me."
Similar to the first-round matchup with 10-seed Marquette, the Gamecocks trailed at halftime due to Florida's explosive 3-point shooting. But 26 points from SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell helped them overcome a seven-point halftime deficit and earn the East Region title.
"I just made plays, I was just in a situation where I just made plays," Thornwell said. "I just felt like plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and was in a situation where I was able to make the plays."
Thornwell opened the first 20 seconds of play by draining a mid-range jumper and the USC defense did its part, trapping UF’s guards and intersecting passing lanes early.
At the 11:24 mark, senior guard Justin McKie hit a 3-pointer to give USC its largest first-half lead of four points. Sophomore forward Chris Silva picked up his second personal foul at the 8:41 mark and Thornwell followed suit with six minutes left in the half.
With 48 seconds left in the half, the USC defense double-teamed SEC Sixth Man of the Year Canyon Barry, but he found center Kevarrius Hayes inside for a layup. Senior guard Kasey Hill stole on the next possession and was fouled by McKie. He hit a free throw to give the Gators their largest lead of the half, 38-30.
In the face of South Carolina’s tight defense, the Gators made 58.3 percent of their 3-pointers in the first half. Senior forward Justin Leon led the team with 13 points before the break, making three of five 3-pointers. The Gamecocks outscored the Gators 22-8 in the paint, but Florida’s seven 3-pointers gave it a 40-33 lead at the half. South Carolina forced 11 turnovers in the opening period while committing just seven.
"We knew we had been here before," McKie said of the half-time deficit. "The offense had been too stagnant. We had one passed shot, two passed shots. That's not us. Some teams are good at that and that's not what we do."
South Carolina went on a 6-0 run to open the second half and overcame a seven-point deficit to take a one-point lead with nine minutes of regulation remaining.
"We had been in that situation many times throughout the season, which I think really prepared us for now, being on this stage and being able to keep our composure," PJ Dozier said.
The Gators went cold from 3-point land after the break, going 0-for-14 and finishing with a 26.9 shooting percent from beyond the arc. In the final three minutes of play, the Gamecock defense did what it has done all season long: dominated in the paint. Thornwell stole the ball from Hill and chucked it to freshman forward Maik Kotsar, who nailed a jumper.
"The moment, when I made the shot, just I felt like it's going to go in, so take the shot. Nothing more to it," Kotsar said.
"When he caught it everybody's like bring it on, bring it and when he shot it it was like, yes," Thornwell added. "We knew, I knew he was ready to play when, like, the second possession of the game he posted up and he, like, called my name and yelled my name, like, 'Sin, give me the ball.' And that's when I knew Maik was ready to play and he was locked in and he made plays for us all night. He just, he was prepared for the moment."
The Gamecocks led by four with 40 seconds left and capitalized on Florida's late fouling. Four Gamecocks — Thornwell, Dozier, Silva and Kotsar — scored in double figures with 26, 17, 13 and 12 points, respectively.
With the win, the Gamecocks will travel to Phoenix, Arizona, to play No. 1 Gonzaga in the Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1.