By John Fanta, @John_Fanta
NEW YORK, NY — It was only fitting that South Carolina’s dagger to Florida was a dunk following a steal.
P.J. Dozier swiped the ball from Chris Chiozza and it ended up in the hands of Duane Notice, who slammed the ball home with one hand and sent the Gamecock faithful into pandemonium. With 11 seconds left, it was all but official – South Carolina was heading to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
“It doesn’t feel real. It feels like a dream. If it is, I don’t want to be woken up,” said Notice, who was wearing the net that the Gamecocks had cut down after their 77-70 East Regional Final win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Oh, it’s real, and it’s the surprise of this edition of March Madness. South Carolina had lost four of six entering the tournament. The Gamecocks beat 2-seeded Duke, 3-seeded Baylor and 4-seeded Florida in consecutive games to dance on to Arizona. And they used their calling card again.
Trailing by seven to the Gators, who shot 7-for-12 (58%) from three in the first half to lead 40-33 at the break, the Gamecocks outscored UF 44-30 in the second stanza. The rally tied the Gamecocks’ largest comeback from a deficit at half this season – the other coming on Jan. 18 when the Gamecocks trailed 28-21 at the break but stormed back to beat these same Gators, 54-50, in Columbia.
“Anyone that’s in sports dreams of moments like this,” said Frank Martin, who is heading to his first career Final Four after coming up just short with Kansas State in 2010. “It’s not something that you start dreaming it the year you win 25 games. Our kids believe in each other, they work their tails off, and we keep our focus where it matters.”
The Gamecocks were once again powered by Sindarius Thornwell, the East Regional Most Outstanding Player, who tallied 26 points to go along with seven rebounds. The SEC Player of the Year gave South Carolina a 65-63 lead with two free throws with 2:24 to play, an edge that Martin’s crew did not relinquish. For Thornwell, a native of Lancaster, SC, this moment is extra special.
“Signing and growing up in South Carolina, all we asked for was a chance to make it,” he said. “All we wanted was a bid in the tournament, to see our name on the board. And when we got our name on the board, the rest takes care of itself.”
After a steal by Thornwell with just over two minutes to go, freshman center Malik Kotsar made it a two-possession game with a 15-footer from the left elbow. It sent the over 20,000 at The Garden into a frenzy, as Mike White called time for the Gators. Florida answered with a Kevarrius Hayes lay-in, but Dozier was fouled on the ensuing possession, and he stepped up with a pair of clutch free throws to make it a 72-68 game with 50 seconds left.
The main reason for the comeback to be complete?
Florida’s hot start from the perimeter turned into an 0-for-14 performance from beyond the arc in the second half.
“Our defense is very exhausting to play against,” said Notice, who had six points, six rebound, and three assists. “We don’t give up easy baskets. By the second half, teams are tired. I think we tired them out today.”
The numbers surely don’t lie, and in a way, those stats and this game was a microcosm of the season for the Gamecocks. The fight through adversity starts and ends with the man at the top.
“I know that when Frank Martin stepped foot on campus, you just got the vibe that the ball was rolling,” said Dozier of the fifth-year head coach of the Gamecocks. “He did promise us that if we had faith in him and we listened to what he had to say, that we would be successful here. It shows.”
Martin looks at back to a moment earlier this season when he told his team to take the rest of the season as a tug-of-war.
“I don’t care how hard it is,” said Martin. “You can’t let go of the rope or your team’s going to lose. So at halftime of games, our guys don’t panic. I’m the one that loses my mind. They don’t panic, they stay the course, they hold on to that rope.”
The Gamecocks, and that rope, are going to Arizona, where 1-seed Gonzaga awaits.