Well-earned honors for two Gamecock greats

South Carolina's A’ja Wilson (22) shoots as Kentucky’s Evelyn Akhator (13) defends.
South Carolina's A’ja Wilson (22) shoots as Kentucky’s Evelyn Akhator (13) defends. tglantz@thestate.com

UNIVERSITY OF South Carolina fans already knew that the best women’s and men’s basketball players in the Southeastern Conference wore garnet and black. They’re just grateful the rest of the SEC recognizes that too.

A’ja Wilson and Sindarius Thornwell were both honored during the past two weeks as SEC Players of the Year. It was the second consecutive honor for Ms. Wilson, who was honored on Feb. 28. She and Mr. Thornwell, who was recognized Tuesday, both excel on offense, defense, rebounding and hustle. Both are leaders who way more often than not show teammates losing isn’t an option.


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Both are South Carolinians — Ms. Wilson from Hopkins and Mr. Thornwell from Lancaster — who turned down opportunities to play for some of the nation’s best college teams to become Gamecocks. In doing so, they have helped send USC basketball to historic successes.

Ms. Wilson is a junior who has lived up to all of the hype she received as a student and player at Columbia’s Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. Declared the top high school female basketball player in her senior class, she was the target of an intense recruiting battle between Connecticut and Tennessee.

She touched off celebrations across the USC campus and the Palmetto State when she announced in April 2014 that she would play for Coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks.

Coach Staley was already building a powerhouse program before Ms. Wilson joined the team. With Ms. Wilson, South Carolina has become one of the nation’s elite programs. Opposing SEC players surely have nightmares of Ms. Wilson holding the basketball underneath their basket or raising her arms on defense.

Both situations usually end badly for Tigers, Razorbacks, Gators and Lady Vols.

This season, the Gamecocks won their fourth straight regular-season championship. Last weekend, they won their third straight SEC tournament championship. Only Tennessee, coached by the legendary Pat Summit, has won that many consecutive conference tournaments.

Two years ago, South Carolina advanced to the Final Four, a first for either Gamecock basketball team. This year, the team will be one of the favorites to do it again.

Mr. Thornwell wasn’t as highly touted as Ms. Wilson when he decided to play for the Gamecocks. But USC fans are just as happy that he did.

The history of men’s basketball at South Carolina consists of long, deep valleys and an occasional mountaintop. Well, maybe a hilltop.

Coach Frank Martin’s efforts to change that have been boosted by Mr. Thornwell. Together, they have the Gamecocks poised to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years. They also have a chance to end a dubious streak: USC hasn’t won a game in the men’s NCAA tournament since 1973.

This season, Mr. Thornwell averaged 21.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He also had 23 blocks and 55 steals despite serving a six-game suspension early in the season.

Sean Farnham of ESPN called Mr. Thornwell “the best two-way player in the league,” according to gamecocksonline.com.

His best game this year, and maybe of his entire Gamecock career, actually came in a loss. Against Alabama at the Colonial Life Arena on Feb. 7, Mr. Thornwell scored 44 points and hauled in 21 rebounds as South Carolina overcame a 17-point deficit to force overtime — or, rather, four overtimes. But with his teammates having a dreadful night on offense, even Mr. Thornwell could not single-handedly beat the Crimson Tide. But he came close.

Next week, both USC basketball teams will begin playing in their respective NCAA tournaments. Both can make history while also converting South Carolina into even more of a basketball state.

With the best two players in the SEC, their chances are good. Congratulations to both Ms. Wilson and Mr. Thornwell on their well-deserved recognition.