Sindarius Thornwell tried to find an untapped reserve of energy to will his aching body into performing the same way he willed South Carolina to this stage. There was still a chance, there was still time to get the Gamecocks to the only Monday night game that would ever matter.
But it wasn’t enough.
USC’s dream season ended Saturday with a 77-73 loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four, the Gamecocks unable to top the hot-shooting Bulldogs. A sizzling 16-0 run after Gonzaga took a 14-point lead with 11:35 to go gave the Gamecocks a brief lead, but the Bulldogs (37-1) reverted to the inside attack that served them throughout their own tournament run to put the game away.
Trailing by three with 12.7 seconds to go, USC had one last chance to extend the game. Everybody in University of Phoenix Stadium knew where that ball was going, too – he was the guy that got them there, so get the ball to Thornwell and let him make a decision.
Gonzaga picked up Thornwell and Josh Perkins fouled him with 3.5 seconds to go. It was a smart play called by a smart coach – ahead three, Gonzaga would cheerfully give up two free throws instead of a 3-pointer.
“I stayed consistent with what we’ve done all year,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “We love to make the ball handler use as much time as possible … and then foul.”
Thornwell swished the first free throw. His second clanked off back rim and Gonzaga rebounded, forcing a foul with 2.2 seconds to go.
“The plan was to miss it left and hopefully Chris (Silva) could tap it out to somebody,” Thornwell said.
Instead, Zach Collins secured the rebound and swished two free throws for the final margin.
Thornwell didn’t look 100 percent from the fever that cost him a practice two days ago – he said he was fine – but still scored 15 points. P.J. Dozier had 17 and Silva 13. USC got enough contributions from its bench to stay in the game, but once the Bulldogs began re-targeting center Przemek Karnowski, the Gamecocks’ lead vanished.
The big man slammed home a dunk and scored another bucket as Gonzaga pulled away.
He ended with 13 points. Nigel Williams-Goss (23), Jordan Mathews (12) and Silas Melson (six) shot all over USC’s beleaguered defense, while Collins (14) tore through the Gamecocks’ posts.
The best season in program history ended at 26-11 in the Final Four, Thornwell making himself into the best player the Gamecocks ever had. A team that started with signature victories over major programs and survived the loss of Thornwell for a six-game suspension posted the second-highest SEC win total in its history.
A struggle over the final seven games of the regular season paid off in the first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years, and the Gamecocks shed a 44-year streak of not winning a tournament game with an electrifying run to Phoenix. The past three weeks have put the program where it has strived to be for so long. While it was disappointing to fall short in the sport’s final weekend, USC reached that final weekend.
The Gamecocks arrived this season. It’s been five years of work, turmoil, some hiccups and a lot of success over the past two seasons.
“We believed in coach from day one,” Thornwell said. “From the day he stepped into my house, we believed in him.”
“Each year, we’ve grown as men and also as basketball players,” fellow senior Duane Notice said. “If I had to go back, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Coach Frank Martin wiped away tears when asked how much this team meant to him.
“When you get people to travel across the country by the masses because they believe in what you do, it’s powerful stuff,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of young kids that want to be the next Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie. I don’t get to coach them anymore, but they’re part of my life forever.”
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GONZAGA 77, SOUTH CAROLINA 73
SOUTH CAROLINA (26-11): Kotsar 2-4 0-0 4, Silva 3-12 7-9 13, Notice 4-9 0-0 10, Dozier 7-16 2-4 17, Thornwell 4-12 5-6 15, Keita 0-0 0-0 0, Gravett 1-4 0-0 2, McKie 3-3 0-0 8, Felder 1-6 2-3 4. Totals 25-66 16-22 73.
GONZAGA (37-1): Williams 2-4 3-4 7, Karnowski 6-12 1-2 13, Mathews 4-11 0-0 12, Williams-Goss 9-16 3-3 23, Perkins 0-2 0-0 0, Collins 6-10 1-2 14, Tillie 0-0 2-2 2, Melson 2-5 0-0 6. Totals 29-60 10-13 77.
Halftime—Gonzaga 45-36. 3-Point Goals—South Carolina 7-20 (McKie 2-2, Notice 2-5, Thornwell 2-6, Dozier 1-3, Gravett 0-2, Felder 0-2), Gonzaga 9-19 (Mathews 4-8, Melson 2-3, Williams-Goss 2-5, Collins 1-1, Perkins 0-2). Fouled Out—Perkins. Rebounds—South Carolina 35 (Silva 13), Gonzaga 36 (Collins 13). Assists—South Carolina 12 (Notice 3), Gonzaga 15 (Williams-Goss 6). Total Fouls—South Carolina 14, Gonzaga 21.