David Cloninger

Cloninger: Oh what a night!

It happened.

If this was a movie, Frank Martin would be holding up the title belt ala Rocky and screaming, “Yo! I DID IT!” If this was in Chicago or Cleveland over the past year, Sindarius Thornwell would be pouring champagne over his and his teammates’ heads.

It’s both. What happened Friday night at Bon Secours Wellness Arena was real life and fantasy, the latter because it seemed so far away for so many years and the former because it was met with brick to the head reality.

South Carolina won an NCAA tournament game.

After 44 years. After 203 other teams had won at least one since they last did.

The Gamecocks spotted Marquette an early lead – only at USC, the narrative went, could a tournament game start with a four-point play after the center fouled a 3-point shooter – and said, “No sweat.” They attacked the Golden Eagles with a perfect combo of defense so tight Marquette couldn’t pass a crumb through a chain-link fence, and an offense that went at them with the fury of a St. Patrick’s Day reveler on an open tap.

USC blasted Marquette out of Greenville and set up a Round of 32 matchup with ACC champ Duke, the heavy for so many of those long-ago ACC years and a team anointed as the best bet to win the national championship. Having watched Duke all year, I see a Marquette with better shooters – the Blue Devils are a handful on offense, but their defense is Clemson’s ACC tournament championship ledger.

The best part? No matter what happens Sunday, this USC season has been one of the best the program ever had. The Gamecocks got to the NCAA tournament for only the ninth time and won a game for the fourth time, and that’s the only thing you need to know.

I’m Ray Tanner, I double Martin’s salary on the spot and start asking him to clear space in his calendar for a photo shoot, so USC can start building the statue. The man just did something no other coach other than the legendary Irishman that shares Martin’s initials did. I’m the honchos at Colonial Life Arena, I’m rolling out the red carpet right now for the Gamecocks’ return to Columbia, whenever that may be, and keeping the party going until.

There are 32 teams alive for the national championship and USC is one of them. The Gamecocks overcame a rough final month to get to the tournament, and gave their legions of fans the best prize they could ever get – another long-suffering program shedding decades of disappointment with a signature win.

No more talk of The Streak.

Unless it’s about continuing a winning one.

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