GamecockCentral.com columnist Scott Davis, who has followed USC sports for more than 30 years, provides commentary from the perspective of a Gamecocks fan. You can follow Scott on Twitter at @scdonfire.
I know how you’re feeling today.
I really do.
Whatever you’re feeling, I’ve already felt it. Then I felt it again. And again. I stayed up all night feeling it. Trust me, you and I are the same people.
You’re wondering if we’ll ever be this close again. Will we ever be this close again to a national title game in basketball? Will we ever even make the Final Four again in any of our lifetimes?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know.
I waited almost 44 years just to get to this point. If there’s another 44 in the offing before we’re on this stage again, there’s a solid chance I won’t still be here to see it.
But I’m going to tell you something right now that may shock you, and I want you to listen to me carefully: I’m not disappointed about South Carolina’s agonizing 77-73 loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four – yes, just one small, tiny step away from the championship game that has eluded us since basketball was invented.
I’m not sad, not deflated, not defeated, not anything except this: I’m so proud of our guys, our coaches, our fans, our state, everybody who’s ever worn garnet and black in public and dared to be proud about it despite everything we’ve been through. Despite everything we’ve been through.
Gonzaga went 36-1 this season entering this basketball game. Us? Well, we’d lost ten games before we even stumbled into the NCAA Tournament. We went one-and-done, again, in the SEC Tournament and looked pretty bad doing it. We weren’t supposed to be here. Everyone thought so. The CBS pre-game show might as well have been named “The Gonzaga Hour Sponsored by Pizza Hut!!!!” If I had a nickel for every time one of the pre-game guys blurted, “I tell you what, I not only think Gonzaga wins with ease tonight, I think they win this whole thing!”…well, I’d have several nickels.
Here we were with a minute-and-something remaining with an opportunity to tie a basketball game we had no business being involved in. Here we were – our best player decimated by the flu and clearly not right, but never surrendering. Here we were with the 36-1 ‘Zags playing their most complete game of the season, firing on all cylinders offensively, locking us down defensively…and somehow we were alive.
Because this team always believed in themselves, their coaches, their school. It was almost like a stubborn virus that just wouldn’t go away no matter how many antibiotics you flooded it with: They kept believing. Until the final buzzer sounded on their last game of 2017, they kept believing. They kept believing.
Do not forget this.
How hard is it to continue believing in something when no one else does? I can barely walk to the mailbox and back without giving up on myself, on my pitiful mission to be in marginally better shape, and on life itself. I give up on my dog on a daily basis, and she does the same to me. My wife has given up on me several times a day, every day, for the whole of 2017 – and rightly so.
Belief is hard, hard work. Faith is believing in the impossible. That’s really what this was – faith.
And that’s why this March run by South Carolina’s basketball team has been the most exciting, most unexpected thing I’ve ever experienced in four decades as a sports fan. Period. A couple of guys in that Gamecock locker room believed and it changed everything, changed everything we think about our school forever.
It shouldn’t have happened, it couldn’t have happened, but it did happen. It happened in my lifetime. It happened because a couple of guys believed and wouldn’t stop doing it for an entire month.
It happened because the guys wearing Gamecock jerseys at halftime of that Marquette game (which seems like 1,000 years ago now) looked at each other and just said: No.
No. Not tonight. Not anymore. Enough.
They looked at each other and said: I don’t care if South Carolina isn’t supposed to win. I don’t care if the rest of the world believes we’re losers and chokers and wannabes or never-will-be’s. I don’t care if we’re the people who always fall short.
It’s not happening today. It’s not happening today. We are not going to die today.
And they didn’t. They stayed alive, and alive, and alive…and all of the sudden they were in the Final Four, a place 320+ Division 1 basketball teams would have done anything to be in.
Not only did they deserve to be there, they honored their school and their state with their performance Saturday. Yes, they were outmanned. Yes, they were playing a better team who was giving its best effort of the season and playing basketball at the highest level. Yes, they weren’t quite sure how to respond under the lights on the biggest stage in the game.
And there they were, seconds remaining, still alive.
You may wait a lifetime to see a Gamecock team in any sport conduct itself with that kind of pride, that kind of will, that belief.
Sure, it would have felt better for me and for you to see this team cutting down the nets Monday. Then we’d all get to wear the championship T-shirts. We’d get to walk around with smug looks on our faces when we saw Clemson acquaintances at work or in the neighborhood, get to finally make fun of people who’ve always made fun of us, get to feel good for a change even though we didn’t actually do anything. Winning it all would have made the rest of us – the fans – feel better about ourselves.
But the truth is, this wasn’t about you and me. This wasn’t our story.
This was about them – these guys. These coaches. We were all merely bystanders to a group of relentless, frustrating, unforgettable and ultimately immortal dudes who would never stop believing.
I am proud to have been a bystander for the last month. I won’t ever forget it. Will you?
Until the End
Unheralded teams have crazy, bizarre runs during March Madness every single year. That’s why we love March Madness.
Remember that absurd George Mason rocket-ride to the Final Four a decade or so ago? How about Wichita State slipping into the semifinals not long ago, or Virginia Commonwealth? Did you recall that Butler played for the national championship recently?
This stuff happens, right? Teams that aren’t supposed to be here have fun for a couple of games before the glory ride ends, and then they head right back to the obscurity they deserve.
That’s what you’re going to be hearing for the next few weeks. You’ll be hearing it from other fans who don’t care for South Carolina and who also have no idea whatsoever how it feels to play in a Final Four in basketball. You’ll hear it from radio guys and TV shouters whose only reason for existence is to attack and keep attacking the things they don’t really understand.
You’ll hear that you squandered your one chance, had a great time doing it and can now settle right back into being mediocre again. After all, even Mississippi State messed around and made the Final Four way back in the ‘90s, and no one’s heard from them ever again. Right?
It doesn’t matter. Because the people who will be telling you that don’t know what we know. They don’t know that this team wasn’t just happy to be there. They don’t know that this team didn’t have a lucky bounce from God or a flurry of last-second miracle threes to keep sending them forward. They don’t know that this group of guys got here because they believed and never stopped, that they willed themselves to the finish line against a gauntlet of relentlessly talented teams.
And we don’t need them to know.
The truth is, our ever-present naysayers may be right. We may not be back here any time soon, or ever again. There’s a real possibility this program might very well drift back towards mediocrity and find itself year after year finishing the season at 17-13 and needing to win the SEC Tournament to get to the Dance again.
They may be right about that. I may never live to see this again.
But they’d be emphatically wrong about who these guys were and what they meant.
These were the guys who believed.
For so long, our university and our state has had so many doubters. So many doubters that at times you start to wonder if there’s anyone left who keeps the faith.
So many doubters saying over and over again, as though it’s their living mantra: They can’t do this. They can’t do this.
Yet these guys did do this.
These were the guys who believed. And by God, I will never forget them for it.