COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's amazing Final Four run is over. It was thrilling, unprecedented and captivated much of the Palmetto State. It also will be difficult for the Gamecocks to duplicate anytime soon.
Coach Frank Martin has steadily built a program of significance over the past five years, this season ending with a team-record 26 wins, its first-ever Final Four appearance and first four NCAA victories in 44 years. The run ended Saturday night with a 77-73 loss to top-seeded Gonzaga.
It was such a special month of achievement - South Carolina had lost six of its final nine games before the NCAAs and many wondered if it would even receive its first tournament bid since 2004 - that Martin needed a few moments at the podium to fight through tears thinking of his guys.
''I'm so proud of these guys,'' Martin said. ''Like I've been saying the last three weeks, the harder it gets, the tougher they stand.''
The experienced core of this group, though, in senior trio Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie are gone, leaving questions about who might take over the leadership of the team going forward. Point guard PJ Dozier, who shined in the NCAA run, is the obvious choice. But the 6-foot-6 sophomore, Martin's first McDonald's All-American recruit with the Gamecocks, had been considered an NBA draft pick earlier in the season and says he'll speak with Martin and his family before deciding on his future.
Without those four, the Gamecocks lose three starters and four of their top six guards from this season.
Thornwell and Dozier will be the hardest to replace. Thornwell was a four-year player who improved his scoring and defense each season under Martin. He took flight this season, averaging team highs with 21.4 points and 7.1 rebounds a game. He was voted Southeastern Conference player of the year by league coaches (Kentucky's Malik Monk won the AP SEC player honors) and spent the season as "the best, unheralded great player in the country,'' according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski who watched Thornwell score 24 points in an NCAA second-round, 88-81 loss to the Gamecocks on March 19.
Dozier, who scored in double figures in all five NCAA Tournament games, has the potential to be the do-it-all performer Thornwell was.
Notice led South Carolina with 69 3-pointers this season and the point man for the team's suffocating defense, his on-ball fronting far and away the best on the team. McKie, the son of school career scoring leader BJ McKie, was a reliable backup who gave steadying minutes when he came in.
The backcourt next season, if Dozier leaves, will consist of this year's backups in Rakym Felder and Hassani Gravett. Both had moments where they helped the Gamecocks win, yet both had similar freshman moments where Martin loudly yanked them from games because of mistakes.
The two, though, have been praised by Martin for their fearlessness in embracing big situations. Also next year, the Gamecocks get a healthy Kory Holden, a high-scoring Delaware transfer who sat out this season. Martin has also locked up Philadelphia recruit David Beatty, a 6-4 McDonald's All-American
South Carolina appears more set down low with 6-9 Chris Silva and 6-10 Maik Kotsar. Silva, a sophomore, is an athletic, dynamic scorer who led the team with 51 blocks. Kotsar played strongly in the NCAA run appears poised for a big jump forward in his second season.
South Carolina's postseason run will no doubt raise Martin's profile on the recruiting trail. In the short term, the Gamecocks, though, will have plenty of backcourt questions to answer next fall. Martin, though, is ready to fight through the doubters so the Gamecocks can build on this season's success.
''I've never tasted easy. I don't know what easy is all about,'' Martin said. ''We took on the challenge.''
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