No more Coppin State. No more Roche’s ankle. No more consecutive NIT champs or 44 years or 57 days.
South Carolina, now and forever, is a Final Four team.
The Gamecocks stuck the biggest exclamation point they ever earned to a 77-70 win over Florida on Sunday, sending them to Phoenix on Saturday for a national semifinal matchup with Gonzaga. Little ol’ USC, orphan of three conferences and having suffered more hardwood heartbreak than teams five times its size, is two wins from a national championship.
Coach Frank Martin, soaked from another post-game water-bottle shower from his gleeful team, summed up a five-year battle that’s culminated in the greatest two weeks in program history.
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“You focus in on chasing young kids around, hoping that they grow up and believe and you end up with guys like these guys right next to me, and their teammates that have the courage to come back every day and do more,” Martin said. “And just -- I’m just out of words. Out of words.”
But not out of gas. The Gamecocks (26-10) dance on.
East Regional MVP Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points, moving past New Yorker John Roche for third place on the school’s career chart, all-tournament selection P.J. Dozier added 17 and Maik Kotsar and Chris Silva combined for 25. Yet the Gators (27-9) never quit; the 3-point shooting that carried them to a seven-point halftime lead disappeared but Florida was attacking the basket.
KeVaughn Allen’s three-point play made it 70-68 Gamecocks with 53 seconds to go but USC, in the bonus since early in the second half, kept getting to the line. Dozier, Silva, Duane Notice and Thornwell didn’t make all their free throws, but they made enough, and as Florida kept missing shots, the lead kept growing.
Chris Chiozza, the buzzer-beating hero of Florida’s win over Wisconsin, dribbled into traffic but the ball was deflected to Dozier. Dozier spied Notice sprinting toward USC’s basket and threw; a pro-USC crowd including Darius Rucker, Bruce Ellington and Sidney Rice stood as the senior closed in.
Notice rammed the ball through with his right hand as Madison Square Garden erupted. Thornwell pumped his fist and screamed, his teammates got back on defense and Rucker, famous for writing “Let Her Cry” had tears streaming down his face.
He wasn’t the only one as the seconds ticked down. The Gamecocks, who hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game in 44 years before two weeks ago, suddenly can’t lose.
“For me to have that dunk, it was a little more for my teammates, more than anything because they always make fun of the fact that I don’t dunk anymore,” Notice said. It was only his second field goal of the game.
USC’s defense had quite a time controlling Florida, which shot 41.7 percent, but the Gamecocks, as they have in three of their four tournament games, couldn’t be stopped offensively. Silva, hampered by two first-half fouls, scored nine of his 13 from the free-throw line and Kotsar, the freshman from Estonia, swished a jumper in the final two minutes for a four-point advantage.
The Gamecocks forced 16 turnovers, giving them an average of 17 in the tournament, and won the rebounding total by three. Notice’s jam – sure to go down in history as “The Dagger Dunk” – sent Columbia into a frenzy as the reality set in.
The Gamecocks won 10 games a year before Martin took over. They were lost, any bit of success they ever had coming with a sour note. Undefeated in the ACC? Lose in the one-bid conference tournament. SEC champs? Lose to a 15-seed.
That’s all over. USC posted a program-record 26th win of the season and did it in the biggest possible circumstance – to reach college basketball’s final weekend.
“All we asked for was a chance to make it,” Thornwell said. “All we wanted was a bid in the tournament, to see our name on the board.”
They got it.
And they keep using it.
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SOUTH CAROLINA (26-10)
Kotsar 6-10 0-2 12, Silva 2-5 9-12 13, Thornwell 8-13 9-10 26, Notice 2-9 2-4 6, Dozier 7-11 3-3 17, Keita 0-0 0-0 0, McKie 1-3 0-0 3, Gravett 0-0 0-0 0, Felder 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 26-53 23-31 77.
Robinson 1-5 2-2 5, Leon 7-15 1-1 18, Hayes 3-4 2-2 8, Hill 4-7 3-4 11, Allen 4-12 3-3 13, Stone 1-2 0-0 2, Gak 0-1 0-0 0, Chiozza 3-10 2-2 9, Barry 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 25-60 13-14 70.
Halftime: Florida 40-33. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 2-10 (McKie 1-1, Thornwell 1-4, Felder 0-1, Notice 0-2, Dozier 0-2), Florida 7-26 (Leon 3-9, Allen 2-8, Robinson 1-3, Chiozza 1-3, Stone 0-1, Barry 0-2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: South Carolina 31 (Silva 9), Florida 24 (Hayes 8). Assists: South Carolina 7 (Notice 3), Florida 11 (Hill 5). Total Fouls: South Carolina 17, Florida 21.