David Cloninger

‘The journey became sweeter:’ USC seniors earn their reward

They knew the deal when they signed. Wins wouldn’t come for a while, maybe a long while.

South Carolina’s senior class of Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie slogged through a 14-20 season in 2013-14, believing in what they would ultimately do but not happy with the losing. It’s not like they were getting blown out, either – eight losses came by eight points or less.

Sophomore year was one for improvement, and the Gamecocks did, notching a winning season for the first time in six years but still unable to really make a move. Their win total increased by three, their losses decreased by four but the games that could have been theirs were still just could-have-been – that year it was nine losses by eight or less, seven by four or less.

It’s an instant gratification culture and, despite knowing what they signed on for, the Gamecocks’ then-sophomores were discouraged. Other players at other schools all over the country were transferring, seeking a greener pasture, so why shouldn’t they?

“We all had our moments where we thought about we should probably reconsider and stuff like that because we were losing a lot,” Notice said. “And like Sin said, we came from a winning culture in our respective areas, but I think that we did a good job of just kind of talking it out and making sure that we saw the vision and committed to it.”

McKie, not playing a lot because of injuries and not productive when he did play, wanted out. His family told him no way. Thornwell wasn’t thinking of leaving but knew he didn’t sign on for this.

“We were always winners in high school. We all had our thoughts like, ‘Man, is it really worth it?’ ” Thornwell said. “We didn’t see it happening.”

“They failed. I failed. We failed. But none of us ever blamed each other,” coach Frank Martin said. “On the contrary, we showed up the next day, and the days they didn’t know if they wanted to work, my staff and I provided that life; and the days that my staff and I probably laid in bed and stared at the ceiling and said, ‘We’ll never figure this out,’ we showed up the next day and we had a bunch of eager young guys that were like, ‘Please. Give me more because I’ve got to get better.’ 

Last season was the breakthrough, even though they were denied the one final step they had clearly earned. But this year, they took that step, then took a couple more.

The senior class leads the Gamecocks into Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Baylor and is playing its best basketball of the season. USC is the most confident, loosest and most pressure-free team in the tournament.

All because the three oldest players on the team refused to quit, knowing the reward was out there somewhere. Waiting four years for it didn’t dampen it.

“It could have been easy for us to kind of falter,” Notice said. “But the kind of group of guys we had, we just rode together our freshman and sophomore year, and we just decided that we’re going to stick through it.

“And once we got committed and added other players along the way, the journey became sweeter, and we just were able to get through the adversity.”

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Sweet 16

Who: (7) South Carolina (24-10) vs. (3) Baylor (27-7)

When: 7:29 p.m. Friday

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York

TV: TBS

Radio: 107.5 FM

Next game: Winner plays Florida-Wisconsin winner on Sunday at a time TBD.

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