GLENDALE, Ariz. – Alarm bells sounded throughout the college basketball world Thursday when South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell was unable to practice after falling ill on the team’s flight to Phoenix for the Final Four.
Thursday, sitting in front of dozens of reporters inside University of Phoenix Stadium, Thornwell proclaimed himself fit and ready to play when the Gamecocks collide with Gonazga Saturday at 6:09 p.m.
Thornwell, recognized by numerous national analysts as the top player in this year’s NCAA Tournament, went so far to insist nothing, including illness, was going to stand in his way of playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“I always knew I was playing no matter what,” Thornwell said. “I was going to play regardless. Nothing was going to stop me from playing. My coaches and teammates are relying on me to step up and make plays in big games.”
Thornwell said he began suffering from minor headaches and a fever on Wednesday, when he practiced with the team in Columbia before flying to Arizona. Soon after the Gamecocks landed, Thornwell’s symptoms increased. By Thursday, he was feeling better, but Frank Martin decided to hold Thornwell out of practice as a precautionary measure.
“I’m fine now, everything is going good,” Thornwell said. “The doctors and I talked about how it was good it happened on a Wednesday. We could get it over with and hopefully be back practicing on Friday. The headaches and fever are gone. Everything worked out. Thursday, Coach Martin wanted me to rest and get fluids in me. I feel a whole lot better.”
Thornwell joined the rest of his teammates in Friday’s open practice at University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, and was seen smiling along with the rest of the Gamecock players as they shot the basketball and ran simple drills for the thousands of fans watching the workout.
“I’m just happy to be here with my teammates and be able to practice as we get ready for the game,” Thornwell said. “My practice time is supposed to be limited, but they are going to have a hard time getting me off the court today.”
Friday’s open practice was the first time Thornwell has shot at UOP Stadium, which, like all domes and stadiums hosting the Final Four, challenges players from a depth perception perspective because the only background is a wave of seats that seem to go on forever.
“It was important for me to get used to the gym based on what my teammates told me about the difficulty of making shots,” Thornwell said.
Besides trying to make shots inside a football stadium, the Gamecocks will also be challenged by Gonzaga’s balanced scoring. The Zags have five players averaging between 9.9 and 16.7 points per game.
“Gonzaga spreads the ball around and the way they knock down shots and how their bigs rebound the ball, they are close to a complete team,’ Thornwell sad. “They are going to be very hard to guard. The way they share the ball and attack you inside-out, they don’t have just one guy where if you stop them you’ll by all right. Everybody can score the ball. We have to guard everybody.”
Defensively, Gonzaga is limiting opponents to 33.7 percent shooting overall and 24.1 percent from 3-point range during the NCAA Tournament. Just like the Gamecocks, the Zags suffocate opponents on the defensive end of the floor with a tall front line (they sometimes put two 7-footers on the floor simultaneously) and fast guards.
“Their bigs are huge and they really protect the rim,” Thornwell said. “They rebound the ball well. We’re big on offensive rebounding and attacking the rim. They do a great job of keeping you out of the paint and making you take pull up jump shots. We’re going to have to do a good job of moving their defense so we can get easier shots.”
-- Thornwell said his 6-game suspension in December “humbled me” and he returned with a huge chip on his shoulder. “I felt like I had something to prove missing those six games. I knew I had to get those six games back and the NCAA Tournament was going to be the opportunity to get those six games back that I missed. I came back more motivated than I was before.”
-- Thornwell has accounted for 31.2 percent of the Gamecocks’ scoring over the past five games. Overall, he accounts for 24.6 percent of USC’s scoring. In SEC play, that figure jumped to 30.2 percent.
-- Thornwell is averaging 2.2 steals per game this season, best in the SEC. In conference games, he averaged 2.4 steals per game, most by a Gamecock player since Devan Downey averaged 2.5 steals in 2009-10.
-- Thornwell has scored 20+ points in 19 games this season, most since Downey also scored 20 or more points in the same number of games in 2009-10.
-- Thornwell is the school record holder for most career game started with 131, outdistancing Melvin Watson (116 games) in second place by a comfortable margin.
-- Thornwell is one of three Gamecocks players with 80 or more assists in 2016-17. P.J. Dozier (99 assists) lead USC, while Duane Notice and Thornwell are tied for second at 84.
FINAL FOUR SCHEDULE (Sat. April 1)
South Carolina vs. Gonzaga, 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
Oregon vs. North Carolina, Approx. 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
(All Times Eastern)
Martin, Dozier, Sin City and Notice talking to the media. pic.twitter.com/NF48rrsKM4
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