MBB: Final Four-bound

Chris Wellbaum, GamecockCentral.com
Gamecock Central
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South Carolina beat Florida 77-70 to advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history. Sindarius Thornwell was once again spectacular, finishing with 26 points, seven rebounds, and two steals, including one in the final minutes that may have been the play of the game.

The game followed a familiar path. South Carolina fell behind in the first half as Florida shot lights out from three. In the second half, South Carolina's offense found a groove and the defense smothered Florida's shooters.

The Gators led 40-33 at halftime and shot 7-12 from three, and were getting open looks. At one point, they scored 12 straight points off threes. The Gators were taking advantage of Gamecock foul trouble. Chris Silva was on the bench with two fouls, and Thornwell, who also had two fouls, was noticeably less aggressive on defense trying to avoid fouling.

But, like it did against Marquette in the first round and Duke in the second round, South Carolina came out of the halftime break a different team. South Carolina continued to attack the rim, and the short baskets that didn't fall in the first half started falling. Florida started to wear down, resorting to fouling. On defense, those open shots were nowhere to be found and South Carolina controlled the glass, outrebounding Florida by nine.

"We just have been in that situation so many times," Thronwell said. "We felt like we were doing the right things. We felt like everything was going good for us, it was just the ball wasn't falling in, and we just needed a couple more stops. So going into halftime we always just buckled in and locked in on what we needed to do to win and took it one possession at a time."

South Carolina quickly narrowed the halftime gap to three, and a single possession was all that separated the two teams for most of the second half. There were fourteen lead changes and ten ties over the course of the game, and South Carolina made the final push after the media timeout with three minutes to play.

Thornwell grabbed a rebound and dribbled coast-to-coast, drawing a foul. He made both free throws to put the Gamecocks ahead for good. On the next possession, Thornwell came up with a steal. HE pushed the ball up court, and as the defense collapsed on him, dished to Maik Kotsar for a thirteen foot jumper. After a Gator timeout, Hayes made a layup to cut into the lead. PJ Dozier was fouled on the next possession, and made both free throws. Duane Notice forced Chris Chiozza into a miss, and Silva grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made one the free throws, putting the Gamecocks up five with 59 seconds left.

South Carolina seemed to be in control, but Khadeem Allen got a step on Thornwell and converted a three-point play. Knowing Florida was trying to foul as quickly as possible on the inbounds, Notice leaked out and caught an over-the-shoulder baseball pass on the other baseline. He barely slammed on the breaks in time to avoid running out of bounds (and probably got away with a travel in the process), but collected himself and dribbled out before being fouled. Notice made both free throws to put South Carolina back up four.

On the next possession, Thornwell stripped Hill and Silva came up with the ball. He was fouled, and made one free throw. Silva added another free throw after he was fouled rebounding another Florida miss. Chiozza made a layup with 24.5 left, as South Carolina conceded the drive. Thornwell was fouled on the inbounds, making a free throw.

Chiozza tried to drive again, but he was stripped by Dozier, who passed ahead to Notice for a wide open dunk, clinching the win and a berth in the Final Four.

In the second half, South Carolina outscored Florida 44-30. South Carolina shot 52 percent while holding Florida to 31 percent, including 0-14 from three. South Carolina went to the free throw line 28 times in the second half alone, and finished the game 23-31 from the line.

"We played harder" in the second half, Frank Martin said. "Our ball screen defense was a lot better in the second half than it was in the first half. But I also think they missed some shots. And sometimes that ball bounces your way, sometimes it does not."

The game once again belonged to Thornwell, who was named the East Region Most Outstanding Player. His game-high 26 points came on efficient 8-13 shooting, plus 9-10 from the line. Thornwell was only credited with one assist, but the offense ran through him in the post during the second half.

"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."

As he has all tournament, Thornwell also got lots of help. Dozier had 17 points and three rebounds. Silva had 13 points and nine rebounds despite only playing 21 minutes, and made 9-12 free throws. Kotsar chipped in 12 points and played 36 minutes. Notice only scored six points, but he had six rebounds, three assist, played suffocating defense, and made big plays in the final minute.

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