The No. 7 seed South Carolina Gamecocks continued their inspiring journey through March Madness on Sunday, once again overcoming a halftime deficit to edge the No. 4 seed Florida Gators 7770 and advance to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in program history.
The Gators never gave up, but the three-point shooting (712) that allowed them to take a seven-point halftime lead would completely disappear (014) in the second half, as the Gamecocks consistently attacked the basket and made their patented run to take the lead.
As predicted, defensive pressure was the story of the game. The Gamecocks forced 16 turnovers, giving them an average of 17 in the tournament, and won the rebounding battle by three.
The Gators, on the other hand, could not hold down South Carolina’s leader and star, Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year and now Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional. Thornwell was averaging 26 points in the NCAA tournament, and he matched that average on Sunday. PJ Dozier, who joined Thornwell on the all-tournament team, added 17 points, while Maik Kotsar and Chris Silva combined for another 25.
Gamecocks coach Frank Martin was joyful and emotional after the game, as the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment began to sink in. His team had beaten the second-, third-, and fourth-seeded teams in the East region to make the Final Four.
When asked about his team’s ability to produce second-half runs, Martin said, “At halftimes of games, our guys don't panic. Doesn't mean we're going to win, but they don't give in to a difficult moment. They don't throw in the towel. And they don't run away from difficult times. On the contrary, they embrace it and they figure a way to get out of it.”
Now the Gamecocks and their defensive skills are off to Phoenix on Saturday for a national semifinal matchup with No. 1 seed Gonzaga. They have a tremendous amount of confidence after this hard-fought East Regional title.
“We're still going into that game thinking we can win,” Thornwell said. “Why not? Why not us-why not go win it all? And that's our mindset. We feel like we can compete with anybody right now in the country.”
Even if South Carolina ends up trailing Gonzaga at the half, that won’t likely concern anyone in the Gamecocks' locker room. They'll have the Zags right where they want them!
Photographs by (from top) Elsa/Getty Images; Max Bonnstetter