NEW YORK — They were far from their warm palmetto home, and the Manhattan sky outside was an inhospitable cold slate gray, but inside Madison Square Garden there was a hot boil of a game going on under the big lights, and that was just the way South Carolina liked it. The Gamecocks reached the first NCAA Final Four in school history by defeating Florida, 77-70 , to complete an East Region performance that will be remembered not just for their run of upsets over higher seeds but for the singeing emotional heat they brought to everything they did.
After 14 lead changes, the game was tied at 63 with just over two minutes to go, and the noise cascading down toward the floor from 20,047 sounded like the roar of a waterfall pounding rocks. On the sideline, Gamecocks Coach Frank Martin was molten with intensity, and on the court, the Gamecocks were waving their arms with a withering defense that was in the process of forcing the Gators to go 0 for 14 from three-point range in the second half. Now they needed some separation, and they had just the man to provide it in Sindarius Thornwell , a player so shape-shiftingly creative he seemed almost boneless.
Thornwell slithered up the court, drew a foul on a head fake and made both free throws. He then dashed to the other end of the court to strip the ball away from Florida, spun and raced headlong again toward the opposite basket as if he were in a suicide drill. Florida’s defense collapsed on him, so he took the assist instead, flipping the ball back to Maik Kotsar , who drilled the jumper to give the Gamecocks a four-point margin. It was the last lead swing of the game — from then on the Gators simply were unable to break the Gamecocks’ grip on the net-cutting scissors.
“All we asked for was a chance to make it,” said Thornwell, a Lancaster, S.C., native who had 26 points, seven rebounds, two steals and that crucial game-breaking assist. “Coach didn’t guarantee anything. All we wanted was to make it. All we wanted was a bid to get in the tournament. . . . All we wanted was a chance.”
The seventh-seeded Gamecocks were a team that just barely made it into the tournament at all after 10 regular season losses. But they were hardened by the furious stomping and hectoring of their hard-luck coach, Martin, a Cuban American from Miami who grew up, as he put it, “without a pot to ---- in” and who also claimed, “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date. Seven.” But in the East Region, this team of mostly homegrown talent took down, in order, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Baylor and now No. 4 Florida, and it did so despite trailing at the half in three of its four tournament games. But the Gamecocks had a plus-40-point differential in second halves for the season.
“It’s just a surreal moment,” said Martin, whose team will face Gonzaga in the national semifinals. “You focus in on chasing young kids around hoping they grow up and believe and you wind up with guys like these, who have the courage to come back every day and do more.”
This was just one more example: The Gamecocks (26-10) clawed back from a 40-33 deficit at intermission, which the Gators built largely by shooting 58 percent from three-point range in the first half, sinking 7 of 12. “Obviously, it’s very, very heartbreaking,” said Coach Mike White, who had the Gators (27-9) in the Elite Eight in just his second year after taking over from legendary two-time national champion Billy Donovan. “To make it this far, you’re right there with a chance to go to the Final Four. You’re up seven at halftime doing some good things.” But they couldn’t buy a deep one in the second half and struggled to just 31 percent shooting overall in the decisive period, in the face of the Gamecocks’ harassing, browbeating defense.
The Gamecocks had made only four of the previous 28 NCAA tournaments and hadn’t appeared in one in 13 years. They hadn’t won a tournament game since 1973. But with their advance to the Final Four, the Gamecocks no longer can be called an underdog — not with that weaponized, mauling defense that stripped opponents of the ball or forced them to default to deep outside shooting. Duke’s guards had become so frustrated they actually started bickering on the court. But attention must also be paid to their offense — no team in the tournament has a more electric and or surging player than Thornwell, the 6-foot-5 all-courter and Southeastern Conference player of the year who leads a squad that hasboth four of five starters averaging double-digit points and shooting 54 percent for the tournament coming into Sunday’s game.
The Gamecocks have that precious commodity, chemistry. There was PJ Dozier , a player so smooth he seems to almost surf the floor, with 17 points, and the brawny Kotsar with 12 and rangy Chris Silva with 13. But it starts with Thornwell, who not only has been their most stylish player but also their unselfish leader, who stayed on campus for four years of grinding seasons. He scored down low in traffic; he scored on hesitation pull-ups,; he scored in any way the situation demanded. Example: the Gamecocks trailed 55-53 with 6:55 to go, when Thornwell reeled off eight straight South Carolina points.
“They made all the plays they needed to, and Thornwell showed why he’s starting to become more appreciated,” White said.
What’s most intriguing and threatening about the Gamecocks now is that they seem to have absolutely no fear of the moment or the stage. According to Martin, that’s because they’re so seasoned by losses. They have a team saying: “Don’t let go of the rope.” The reference is to a tug of war, and it was born during the regular season, when they were just an ordinary, struggling team on their way to those 10 losses.
“It goes back to adversity okay?” Martin said. “When we weren’t good enough to win, they never throw in the towel. . . . I said to our guys: Have you ever been in a tug of war? . . . This is how it works. You have two groups of people, and they’re pulling in opposite directions. If one person on one side lets go of the rope, it’s bad. I don’t care how hard it is; you can’t let go of the rope, or your team’s going to lose. So we started saying, ‘We’re in a difficult moment right now. Hold on to that rope. Don’t let go of that rope. I don’t care how hard it gets. Don’t let that rope go.’ And our guys are fully invested in it. So at halftimes of games, our guys don’t panic. They stay the course. They hold on to that rope.”