Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Josh Pastner: "Modern miracle" that Georgia Tech is playing for NIT title

In just five months, Josh Pastner has taken inexperienced Georgia Tech roster and molded it into a winner as Yellow Jackets play for NIT championship Thursday. (Photo by the New York Times)

NEW YORK -- When Josh Pastner took over a Georgia Tech program in the lower echelon of the Atlantic Coast Conference, he received several warnings of caution as he began his efforts to resurrect a program once in the same stratosphere with North Carolina, Duke and Maryland in the halcyon days of Bobby Cremins.

The situation in Atlanta was so dire that even CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein, a well-respected college basketball insider who does a better job of finding the positive in every program than any of his contemporaries, predicted that the Yellow Jackets would not win one single ACC game.

Five months later, not only did Georgia Tech win a conference game; of which they captured eight, to be exact, they stand on the precipice of a postseason championship after Tuesday's wire-to-wire win over CSU Bakersfield in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

"From where we started, and to where we are now, it's been a remarkable year," Pastner reflected as a fairytale ending hardly anyone could have imagined coming so early in the program's current story lies just 40 minutes away on the horizon. "To be sitting here at 21 wins and playing on Thursday night on national television, it's a credit to the young men, to the players."

Weathered in the coaching ranks through seven seasons at Memphis but still just a spry 39 years of age, Pastner is no stranger to pressure-cooker environments at major basketball schools. It was in 2009 that the former Arizona walk-on, with no head coaching experience to his credit, was called on to replace John Calipari after his former boss picked up and left for Lexington to become the savior at the University of Kentucky. What followed was five postseason appearances and 167 wins on Beale Street to maintain the longtime status quo of success that has since followed him to the home of Coca-Cola, the Braves, and a sleeping giant of sorts in the ACC.

"This is important for our program," he said of this season's NIT run. "This is a major rebuild job. We couldn't give any opportunity to continue to get better and work and improve. The continuation of their development is a big plus for us."

Pastner is no stranger to recruiting top talent and cultivating it, starting with the scores of NBA professionals he helped turn out under Lute Olson at Arizona, to the likes of Tyreke Evans and Will Barton; among others, at Memphis. This season, he appears to have found a gem in freshman Josh Okogie, whose buzzer-beating layup upset then-14th-ranked Notre Dame in January, and turned 6-foot-10 junior Ben Lammers into a burgeoning big man who averages close to a double-double every game. Next year, the Yellow Jackets return the bulk of this year's rotation while welcoming a talented guard in New York's Jose Alvarado, currently of Christ the King High School in Middle Village. Until then, he and his program bask in an opportunity that even the most ambitious of dreamers could not have foreseen happening so quickly.

"I've said it many times, it's a modern miracle," said Pastner of how far the Yellow Jackets have come. "I can remember like yesterday watching our first workouts. If you told me (then) we're playing on Thursday for the NIT championship, I would say you're crazy. I remember at spring meetings, multiple coaches from the league just said, 'It's going to be a hard year for you. You're never going to experience the amount of losing that you're going to go through this year.'"

"It's been a heck of a season. Yes, of course you've got to have good players, but then they've got to be as a team, and when we're in areas where we're playing teams that have better talent than we do, some of our wins have come because that night, we were the better team. It's been a remarkable journey, and a great lesson for me to see it all unfold."

Baker Dunleavy introduced as Quinnipiac head coach, Daniels not transferring

Flanked by athletic director Greg Amodio and president John Lahey, Baker Dunleavy is officially named head coach at Quinnipiac, Bobcats' third coach at Division I level. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

A new era has officially begun in Hamden, as Quinnipiac introduced Baker Dunleavy as its head men's basketball coach Tuesday afternoon.

"It was very clear to me that there is a foundation in place at this school that shares a lot of what I believe," the 34-year-old Dunleavy said when accepting his first career head coaching position. "I really look forward to embracing this community and getting to know the people in this program."

The son of former NBA head coach Mike Dunleavy, now the head coach at Tulane; and younger brother of former Duke standout and current NBA veteran Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Baker Dunleavy comes to Quinnipiac by way of Villanova, where he spent the past seven seasons rising through the ranks of Jay Wright's staff, first as the director of basketball operations before a four-year run as associate head coach. As Wright's right-hand man, he led the Wildcats to four consecutive Big East Conference regular season championships, and most notably an epic victory over North Carolina in last April's national championship game. He also enjoyed a four-year playing career on the Main Line, with a brief career at Merrill Lynch bookending his time as a student-athlete and coach.

"We were interested in finding an individual who shared and could lead us to our aspirational goals," athletic director Greg Amodio remarked when introducing Dunleavy as the successor to Tom Moore, who was fired on March 7 after a ten-year tenure at the helm of the Bobcats. "As we moved through the search, we kept coming back to one individual who exemplified the traits necessary to realize our aspirational goals, and that individual was Baker Dunleavy; someone who was described as thoughtful, calculated, a great recruiter, a passionate educator, a fierce competitor, a leader of men, and a winner."

Dunleavy's first task will be to mold Quinnipiac into a winner while simultaneously keeping pieces of a promising future intact. It was reported on Monday that freshmen Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss were seeking a release from the university, but both are presently noncommittal about their intentions for next season. A third player, junior forward Chaise Daniels, was also reportedly requesting a release, but took to social media to refute rumors of his departure.

Dunleavy also announced his coaching staff Tuesday, with former Hofstra and Fordham head coach Tom Pecora headlining a trio of assistants who are each, in some way, connected to the Villanova coaching tree that Dunleavy himself is a branch of. Pecora returns to the coaching ranks following a two-year stint in the broadcast booth as a color commentator for various sports networks.

Shaun Morris comes to Quinnipiac from Boston University, where he served as an assistant to Joe Jones, who worked on Wright's staff at Villanova before assuming the head coaching position at Columbia. The third member of Dunleavy's staff is Anthony Goins, most recently a member of the coaching staff at Yale; whose head coach, James Jones, is Joe Jones' older brother.

Monday, March 27, 2017

East Regional and Bridgeport Regional: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK, and BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Three days in a weekend to epitomize March Madness. Along the way, there were logistical issues with New Jersey Transit and the trip up the New England Thruway to the Nutmeg State. All that was soon forgotten. The memory stays embedded on the games that were witnessed, action and drama that transpired.
Friday night at Madison Square Garden treated us to two distinctly different games. In the opener, South Carolina had it all over Baylor, earning their advancement to the Elite Eight. The final game of the night saw a contest everyone will be talking about for quite some time. Florida showed how long four seconds truly is, as the Gators’ Chris Chiozza sped up the floor and launched a running, buzzer-beating three-pointer to send Florida to a regional final and Chiozza to the back pages of newspapers.

In the women’s Bridgeport Regional, we were reminded you must play the game. On paper, Maryland had the edge. On the floor, Oregon was better executing and forcing turnovers to advance to the Elite Eight. The second game saw UConn withstand a good challenge from UCLA and show why they are the most dominant team in the land, now winners of 111 straight following Monday’s latest triumph over Oregon.

Sunday gave the packed Garden another classic in every sense of the word. South Carolina and Florida battled hard, with a trip to Phoenix hanging in the balance. With three minutes to go, the score was tied, 180 seconds separating two teams from a coveted trip to the last weekend of the college season. South Carolina drew first blood, then their lockdown defense, widely discussed by fans and observers during the weekend, took over. The Gamecocks’ 77-70 victory was closer than the final margin hinted.

South Carolina had their first Final Four ticket punched. In the end, it was a reaffirmation of a timeworn principle: Defense wins games. Great plays and individual scoring efforts aside, Frank Martin’s Gamecocks proved to be the story.

The final analysis gave us different types of games and styles from the participating teams. From the Big Apple to Bridgeport, 75 miles north, a common denominator throughout was unforgettable excitement; and of course, defense.

An hour away from tipoff Friday, an anxious crowd awaits outside Madison Square Garden:
Wisconsin's cheerleaders, already checked in, prepare to ascend the escalators to the Garden floor:
South Carolina and Baylor, moments away from player introductions:
A look at one of MSG's many souvenir stands, a prime target of fans eager to commemorate their experience:
Chris Chiozza's buzzer-beater, as viewed by the Florida pep band:
Outside Webster Bank Arena, site of the NCAA Women's Tournament Bridgeport Regional:
Game action between Maryland and Oregon:
Ray with former UConn star and No. 3 overall WNBA Draft pick Morgan Tuck, now a member of the Connecticut Sun:
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma takes the floor as the Huskies match wits with UCLA:
UCLA's cheer and dance teams watch as the Bruins' alma mater is played:
Madison Square Garden before Sunday's East Regional final:
South Carolina's Hassani Gravett, in mid-throwdown during pregame warmups:
The Garden, as seen from the Chase Bridge:
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin cuts down the net after his Gamecocks punched their ticket to the Final Four:
The Gamecock celebration, in full swing:
Cocky, the South Carolina mascot, poses for a victory selfie:
The Garden jumbotron with one final memento:

Baker Dunleavy named head coach at Quinnipiac; Dixon/Kiss/Daniels to transfer

Quinnipiac has found its successor to Tom Moore, naming Baker Dunleavy as its new head men's basketball coach.

Dunleavy, 34, becomes the Bobcats' third coach since the program transitioned to Division I. He follows a 10-year run by Moore that was largely successful based on his 162-150 overall record, but marked by struggle in the past two seasons, where Quinnipiac amassed just 19 wins against 42 losses.

The son of longtime NBA head coach and current Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy, Baker brings a wealth of experience at a high level to Quinnipiac, having spent seven years on the staff of Jay Wright at Villanova. His stint on the Main Line began as the Wildcats' director of basketball operations before rising through the ranks to associate head coach in 2013. His tenure at Villanova saw him help develop all-Big East talent the likes of Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena, Maalik Wayns, JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, and was highlighted by the Wildcats' epic national championship victory over North Carolina in 2016.

Dunleavy also played at Villanova, graduating in 2006 and reaching a regional final in his senior season on what had been regarded at the time as the best Wildcat team in the Wright era. He inherits a Quinnipiac roster once thought to have a promising foundation for success in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but now rife with major question marks as each of the Bobcats' top three scorers this past season; freshman guards Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss, and junior forward Chaise Daniels, have each requested releases that will permit them to seek a transfer. All three are expected to obtain them in the near future.

Quinnipiac will introduce Dunleavy in a 1 p.m. press conference Tuesday afternoon from the TD Bank Sports Center, and the incoming head coach has been rumored to be in the process of forming a coaching staff. Multiple sources have suggested Dunleavy will look within the Villanova family to fill at least one vacancy, and the New Haven Register's Dave Borges has already hinted that Tom Pecora; the former head coach at Hofstra and Fordham who has spent the past two seasons as a television analyst, is under consideration for an assistant coach position.

South Carolina 77, Florida 70: Tempo-Free Recap

South Carolina celebrates after claiming East Regional championship over Florida. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- A trip to the Final Four was on the line at Madison Square Garden, as seventh-seeded South Carolina faced No. 4 seed Florida in the East Regional final.
In a thriller with 14 lead changes and 10 ties that, appropriately enough, came down to execution in the final minutes, South Carolina defeated Florida 77-70 to earn their first-ever appearance in a national semifinal.

First five possessions:
Florida: Field goal, field goal, missed field goal, turnover, turnover
South Carolina: Field goal, turnover, turnover, missed field goal, field goal

The 4-4 tie at the 16-47 mark of the opening stanza was an inauspicious start for South Carolina, who committed turnovers in two of their first three possessions. The Gamecocks’ defense responded by forcing turnovers on back-to-back Florida possessions. The pace soon turned moderate, more favorable to South Carolina, as the Gators regularly enjoy a 70-possession tempo.

First half observations: South Carolina denied passes, doubling on baseline drives and trapping off ball screens. As impressive as Frank Martin’s defense is, Florida still owned a 100 offensive efficiency (14 points on 14 possessions) at the 12-minute timeout. Obviously, the Gators have many ways to put points on the board.

Sindarius Thornwell was virtually automatic in the paint, but Florida’s main threat for most of the half was senior Justin Leon. A flurry of late three-pointers put the Gators ahead by four. To respond, Martin employed a zone for a few possessions, then half court traps, changing defenses in an attempt to get the hot-shooting Gators out of a rhythm.

Halftime: Florida 40, South Carolina 33
Possessions: 35
Offensive efficiency: Florida 114, South Carolina 94

First four minutes of second half:
Always important, but especially crucial on this day, given what is at stake. South Carolina won the segment, 10-4, to cut their deficit to one at the 16-minute mark. Naturally, the job was done on offense. The story of these few minutes was defense. Even in their stance, you could detect there was a bounce in South Carolina’s defensive step. The Gamecocks contested and limited Florida to one shot during that stretch.  

Maik Kotsar, a 6-foot-10 freshman from Estonia, is doing a nice job. Kotsar sets screens, is a viable target in the low post, and is not afraid to assert himself on offense. His putback with just under 12 minutes to play put South Carolina back in the lead. Soon after, Florida cooled off considerably from long range. In fairness, give credit to the South Carolina defense as well. At the 8-minute media timeout, Florida was shooting 30 percent from distance for the day.

With three minutes to go in regulation, the score was tied at 63. Down the stretch, every South Carolina possession included a touch by Thornwell. Florida went the entire second half without a three. Nevertheless, the Gators had done admirable work in the paint and despite the perimeter struggles, were still alive. Up four and going to the free throw line with a minute to go, the Gamecocks could feel it. In a cruel irony, Chris Chiozza; Florida’s hero on Friday, lost the ball on a penetration trailing and hoping to cut the deficit to two. South Carolina converted on a Duane Notice breakaway dunk to provide the exclamation point and punch their ticket to Phoenix.

Possessions: South Carolina 68, Florida 70
Offensive efficiency: South Carolina 113, Florida 100

Four Factors:
Effective field goal percentage: South Carolina 51, Florida 48
Free throw rate: South Carolina 59, Florida 23
Offensive rebound percentage: South Carolina 38 Florida 36
Turnover rate: South Carolina 16, Florida 23

Leading Scorers:
South Carolina: Sindarius Thornwell, 26 points (Effectiveness factor: 32)
Florida: Justin Leon, 18 points (Effectiveness factor: 24)

What South Carolina did well: Stop Florida’s three-point shooting in the second half. Gators scorched the nets at a 7-of-12 clip in the first half. Over the final 20 minutes, they came up empty, going 0-for-14.

What Florida did well: Hit the boards. They came up short in offensive rebound percentage while outrebounding the Gamecocks 13-11 on the offensive end and leading 14-10 in second chance points.

Ball control index:
South Carolina 1.00
Florida 1.13

NOTES: Florida’s Kasey Hill led all with five assists. Chris Silva of South Carolina led all players with nine rebounds. Florida’s leader under the boards was Kevarrius Hayes, with eight.

Besides his 26 points, Thornwell also added seven rebounds. South Carolina did another good job of getting themselves in a position to draw fouls. They shot 23-of-31, but did miss a few down the stretch as they were nursing a one-possession lead. Florida was 13-of-14 from the charity stripe. South Carolina is now 26-10 and moving on to the Final Four, where they will meet Gonzaga for a spot in the national championship. Florida ends their season at 27-9.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mr. Maye! Luke's jumper shoots UNC into Final Four

Luke Maye pumps his fist after game-winning jumper shortly before buzzer broke tie with Kentucky and sent North Carolina to Final Four for a second straight season. (Photo by Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer)

In Chapel Hill, and in the hearts of North Carolina fans worldwide, March 26 may very well be Maye Day for the foreseeable future.

Luke Maye, the sophomore forward who rose to the occasion with his first career double-double in the Tar Heels' South Regional semifinal win over Butler Friday evening, reprised his clutch role with a moment that will not soon be forgotten; his long jumper from just inside the left wing with three-tenths of a second remaining serving as the latest entry into the annals of March Madness, the final basket in a 75-73 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats inside Memphis' FedEx Forum that sent UNC to a second straight Final Four.

In an ironic twist of fate, Maye's game-winner was preceded by a dramatic three-pointer by Kentucky's Malik Monk to tie the score at 73 apiece with ten seconds to go, evoking memories of last season's classic national championship game between UNC and Villanova, only the roles were reversed.

"They made a big three," said Maye as he recounted the decisive possession. "Monk hit it over my hand and then Theo (Pinson) just drove down court and was penetrating towards the basket and kind of picked my man a little bit. I stepped back, he gave me the ball and I just shot it, and luckily, it went in."

Maye's 17 points were second only to the 19 recorded by Justin Jackson as the Tar Heels (31-7) reached the national semifinals for a record 20th time in program history. UNC will face Oregon at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona Saturday evening following the conclusion of the first Final Four matchup, which pits East Regional champion South Carolina against West Regional winner Gonzaga.

UNC overcame a shaky first half, one in which point guard Joel Berry II appeared to turn his left ankle in the opening minutes (he would return several minutes later) and also one where Theo Pinson's defensive prowess was sidelined by two quick personal fouls, to fend off the Wildcats (32-6) throughout the opening stanza, taking a 38-33 lead to the locker room. Kentucky would fire off six straight points in the first two minutes and 25 seconds, taking their first lead after a pair of Bam Adebayo free throws put the No. 2 seed ahead by a score of 39-38. But the Tar Heels punched back with a 9-2 run to forge a six-point lead with seven minutes gone in the final stanza. The two powerhouses exchanged matching haymakers as the stretch run approached, with Kentucky getting eight points from reserve forward Isaac Humphries as part of a key 10-2 run that saw UNC go cold from the floor, using the rally to stake a 64-59 advantage with just over five minutes on the clock and prompting a rare timeout from head coach Roy Williams.

"I was trying to yell positive messages," said Williams of his coaching while the Tar Heels fell behind. "I said in the Arkansas game, we were down five and this is going to help us because we're going to come back. We've got the same situation. You've shown that you can do this, so I tried to be really positive with them at that point. They reacted admirably, to say the least."

In the four minutes and nine seconds following Williams' timeout, UNC ripped off a 12-0 run; the exact same margin by which they closed out their second-round win over Arkansas one week ago, to own a 71-64 cushion after a pair of Pinson free throws with 54 seconds to play. But Kentucky would not go away, as a De'Aaron Fox three-pointer on the ensuing possession trimmed the lead to four points.

Electing not to foul, head coach John Calipari trusted his defense, and was rewarded when the Wildcats forced a five-second violation on Kennedy Meeks' inbounds attempt to set up the first of two threes in the final minute by Monk, who lit up the Tar Heels for 47 points in Kentucky's regular-season win over UNC in December. With that, the lead was just one slim point, but UNC quickly got it back to three when Jackson broke away from the Kentucky defense with a lay-in to make the score 73-70 with 34 ticks on the clock.

The Tar Heels avenged the turnover from two possessions prior when Maye stripped Adebayo, forcing a held ball and retaining the basketball seconds later. Immediately following the inbounds, Monk fouled Jackson, sending the junior to the foul line for a one-and-one. Jackson, a 74 percent shooter at the charity stripe, missed the shot off the back rim, leaving the door open for Kentucky to tie the game, which they did as Isaiah Briscoe fed Monk for a contested three just off the top of the key. Opting not to call a timeout, Williams let his team play, with Pinson driving down the floor before calmly dishing to Maye for what turned out to be the coup de grace.

A Calipari timeout with three-tenths of a second to play left the Wildcats with one last hope for a miracle, but Derek Willis' home run pass sailed over the baseline and out of bounds, handing the ball back to the Tar Heels and sending Kentucky home with a bitter regional final loss on the 25th anniversary weekend of Christian Laettner's epic catch-and-shoot jumper to send Duke to the 1992 Final Four at the Wildcats' expense.

In addition to Jackson and Maye, Berry battled his way to 11 points amid his aforementioned ankle injury. Four Kentucky players saw double digits on the scoreboard, led by Adebayo, who posted 13 points in a game certain to enter the history books as a classic, and one in which UNC earned a return ticket to the scene of their heartbreak last April thanks to the heroics of a sixth man who fought through his struggles and achieved his own personal redemption.

"There's no success without struggle," said Jackson of Maye's payoff. "That's what kept us going over the summer, and I think Luke is a testament of that. I don't think Luke has put together two games like this all season, and it just shows with hard work you can continue to play and you can be a great player. That's kind of what the background of that is, and I'm happy for this guy."

Persistence pays off for Frank Martin as Gamecocks take him to Final Four

Frank Martin holds Madison Square Garden net aloft after South Carolina won East Regional final to advance to first Final Four in school history. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW YORK -- He started out a boy in Miami, raised by a single mother who emigrated from political unrest in her native Cuba.

From there, the number of hats worn grew with time. Bouncer, teacher, high school coach, college assistant coach, college head coach.

Name it, and chances are Frank Martin has probably done it.

On Sunday, the 51-year-old who rose from humble beginnings and built his South Carolina program the same way he built his own career added a new hat to the ensemble.

Final Four coach.

"I'm just out of words," he conceded, his voice cracking with three decades worth of emotion after a 77-70 victory over Florida sent the Gamecocks to their first-ever national semifinal. "It's just a surreal moment. You focus in on chasing young kids around, hoping that they grow up and believe, and you end up with guys like these guys next to me and their teammates, that have the courage to come back every day and do more."

Doing just enough to get by has never been an option for Martin, who poured his heart and soul into every rung of his personal coaching ladder. From his days in the South Florida high school circuit, to his time as an assistant at Northeastern and then with Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and Kansas State, to his five-year run as Huggins' successor in Manhattan, to his current project in Columbia, extra effort has always been a requirement in building a contender.

"If one person on one side lets go of the rope, it's bad," said Martin, equating perseverance to tug-of-war. "I don't care how hard it is, you can't let go of the rope or your team's going to lose."

It was that concept, that life-and-death situation which Martin's players heeded in the second half Sunday, the same time of the game where the Gamecocks overpowered Marquette, slayed the giant against Duke, put Baylor's offense in a vise. It was done not through fear, despite their coach's trademark intensity; but rather, through trust.

"They believe in each other," Martin gushed. "They're completely invested into each other. Not winning, each other. And they're powerful kids."

It stands to reason that it would be a group effort, with Martin's own determination; the same relentlessness he joked about when saying his wife rejected seven separate overtures before finally agreeing to date him, leading the cavalry along with a dream that never got too far away, never became unattainable.

"Only one person wrote me back," he reflected when addressing his difficult attempt to break into the college coaching ranks, receiving only one hand-written response, from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, no less. "And then I ended up taking, a year later -- I had a principal named Linda Evans -- she gave me a job to coach her basketball school, and I loved it. And then a gentleman named Rudy Keeling called me and offered me a job at Northeastern, and here we are, man. Here we are."

Frank Martin embraces his mother following South Carolina's East Regional final victory. (Photo by Reggie Anderson/WLTX-TV)

"If you ever lose your dream or your desire to fight for your dream," Martin continued, "then don't get mad when you don't get it. But adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward, and it goes back to my mom."

"The strongest woman I ever met," he said, effusively praising his mother. "Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court, doesn't make excuses. We'd go to Wendy's or Burger King every two Fridays, that was our family meal. She gave me the courage to try and do this for a living, and watching her cry tears of joy because of all her sacrifices have allowed me and my sister to move forward in life. When you make your mother cry for joy, it gives her more life, and she's a special lady."

So too is her son, who now reaches his greatest stage of a career born through undying faith, reared through a vision of greatness and advanced through a network of people willing to do for him what he pledged to do for them: Fight to the death, and not let go of the rope.

"When we were winning at Kansas State and when I walked in and said, 'I'm thinking of doing this,' those families, I become responsible for their children. It's part of my job. And they all said, 'Frank, if that's what you think we need to do, we're in.' The people that are put in my life daily are just incredible, and I'm just telling you, I'm the luckiest dude on the planet."

South Carolina fends off Florida to reach first Final Four

South Carolina celebrates after defeating Florida to win East Regional and reach first Final Four in program history. (Photo by John Fanta/College Hoops Digest)

NEW YORK -- Frank Martin passionately advocated that attitude came first when teaching his team the principles of his stout defense, stating that his players needed the right mindset to learn the proper technique.

Today, attitude and technique has landed South Carolina in its first-ever Final Four.

Led by 26 points from Sindarius Thornwell and a defense that stood tall when it mattered most, the seventh-seeded Gamecocks overcame a stout challenge from Southeastern Conference rival Florida, emerging from a 40-minute war with a 77-70 victory in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden.

"All we asked for was a chance to make it," said Thornwell of the journey he and his team have gone on, one that had seen them overpower Marquette and Duke in Greenville before putting on a defensive clinic in the regional semifinals against Baylor on Friday. "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."

The two teams traded blows through the early stages of the opening stanza, with neither opening a lead greater than four points over the first eight minutes. Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year and hot hand for South Carolina (26-10) throughout their improbable run through March, scored seven points in that stretch to once again galvanize the offensive efforts. Not to be outdone, Justin Leon poured in a quick seven points for Florida to keep the fourth-seeded Gators within earshot.

The Gamecock defense, as it had against Baylor in Friday's regional semifinal, tightened the screws in the latter portion of the half, denying Florida clear looks on multiple occasions while the offense patiently calculated its strikes. In the process, the Gators were forced into eight turnovers in the first 12 minutes, owning a suboptimal 42 percent turnover rate at that juncture.

Florida (27-9) would remedy their early woes, connecting on five consecutive three-pointers to kick-start a 17-6 run to put them ahead 37-30 inside of a minute to go before the intermission, overcoming a 15-point first half from Thornwell by making seven of their twelve attempts beyond the arc. Leon was most integral in earning the separation on the scoreboard, connecting on three of five from deep and rivaling Thornwell with 13 points in his own right as the Gators took a 40-33 lead to the locker room.

South Carolina came out of the blocks as the primary aggressor in the second half, uncorking a 10-4 spurt to draw within one point before a Canyon Barry layup pushed the Florida lead back to three. The margin would remain within one possession over the next several trips down the floor, with Maik Kotsar's putback tipping the scales in the Gamecocks' favor with 11:28 on the clock, making the score 49-48 and bringing a largely pro-South Carolina crowd to life.

The Gamecocks gained two more points on a pair of Chris Silva free throws, only for the Gators to respond with five straight, as Leon's conventional three-point play with 9:23 remaining in regulation swung the pendulum back to Florida, 53-51. Both sides again exchanged baskets to pass the next four minutes by, with Thornwell's drive inside falling through the net at the 5:27 mark to regain the lead for South Carolina, breaking a 57-all tie at that point. But the Gators would punch back, scoring six of the next eight points to retake the lead before Silva's cleanup of a missed Thornwell three knotted the proceedings at 63 apiece with just over three minutes to play.

South Carolina forged ahead again after Thornwell, driving inside against two Florida defenders, drained two foul shots after the Gators came up empty when Leon's driving layup rimmed out, and then stretched its advantage to four when the senior; with his back to the basket, fed Kotsar for a jumper from the foul line to put the Gamecocks up 67-63 with 1:55 to play.

Kevarrius Hayes brought Florida back within one possession on the ensuing trip down the floor, but a foul on Chris Chiozza and two subsequent PJ Dozier free throws made it a four-point game again. A split at the line by Silva, followed by a KeVaughn Allen three-point play, got the Gators within two. Needing a stop, Florida was forced to foul after an apparent Duane Notice travel was missed by the officials. The senior guard hit both foul shots to put South Carolina back up by four. The Gators had two more chances to stay in the game, but came up empty on both as the Gamecocks were able to close out the game with the defensive focus that propelled them to this stage in the first place. A one-handed dunk by Notice with 11 seconds left put the exclamation point on South Carolina becoming the second straight No. 7 seed to win a regional final at the Garden, joining eventual national champion Connecticut, who accomplished the feat by defeating Michigan State in 2014.

Thornwell, the Most Valuable Player of the East Regional, led all scorers with his 26-point output, joined in double figures by three of his teammates as Dozier added 17, Silva scored 13 and Kotsar 12. Thornwell also added seven rebounds, with Silva contributing nine to the winning cause. Leon, in his final collegiate game, led Florida in the losing effort with 18 points. The Gators, who used the three-point shot to their benefit in the first half, saw their torching of the nets turn into bricks of ice after halftime, as they went 0-for-14 from distance over the final 20 minutes.

With the win, South Carolina will now take on Gonzaga on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium in one of the two national semifinals, with Oregon facing either North Carolina or Kentucky in the other as an institution long regarded as a football school now has a hardwood testimonial to call its own.

"It's a blessing," Dozier remarked. "Personally, I didn't know where this program could go. Coach didn't promise us anything, but 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 and it shows."

"We're not going to settle for this," Thornwell proclaimed. "We're still going into that game (Saturday) thinking we can win. Why not? Why not us? Why not go win it all? We feel like we can compete with anybody right now in the country."

Bridgeport Regional Semifinals: Tempo-Free Capsules

Head coach Brenda Frese and staff look on as Maryland battles Oregon in Bridgeport Regional semifinals. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- In the first game of Saturday’s regional semifinal doubleheader, tenth-seeded Oregon upset Maryland, the No. 3 seed, 77-63, to advance to the Elite Eight. The Ducks built a 36-27 lead at the half and held serve after the intermission. In a 38-possession opening stanza, Oregon showed a 95-73 edge in offensive efficiency.

Possessions: Oregon 73, Maryland 72
Offensive efficiency: Oregon 106, Maryland 88

Four Factors:
Effective field goal percentage: Oregon 51, Maryland 46
Free throw rate: Oregon 26, Maryland 30
Offensive rebound percentage: Oregon 42, Maryland 44
Turnover rate: Oregon 23, Maryland 29

What Oregon did well: Force turnovers. In raw numbers, Maryland was guilty of 21 miscues, something coach Brenda Frese lamented after the game.

What Maryland did well: Also force turnovers. While they committed their own share of mistakes, the Terrapins did force Oregon into 17 giveaways. However, they were unable to take advantage of that.

Leading scorers:
Oregon: Sabrina Ionescu, 21 points (Effectiveness factor: 32)
Maryland: Brionna Jones, 16 points (Effectiveness factor: 38, per minute: 1.00)
Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, 16 points (Effectiveness factor: 21)

Ball control index:
Oregon 1.47
Maryland .952

Oregon is now 23-13, while Maryland ends the season at 32-3. For head coach Kelly Graves, the Ducks’ run has been a classic survive-and-advance march. The Ducks barely got by Temple in the first round before upsetting Duke in Durham. With Maryland now dispatched, Oregon stands a game away from a Final Four. They have an arduous task in Monday’s final, but the bottom line is the opportunity that awaits.

Geno Auriemma enters Webster Bank Arena moments before UConn's eventual victory over UCLA. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

UConn 86, UCLA 71

Although they would go on to their record 110th-straight win, UConn trailed UCLA, 9-2, through the first three minutes and 19 seconds. The deliberate pace and subsequent start was imperative for the Bruins, playing a de facto road game against the juggernaut Huskies, whose lone field goal in the game’s first five possessions came off an offensive rebound. In fact, UConn had four offensive boards in the initial stretch.

The Huskies soon uncorked one of their patented runs, this one a 20-4 spurt, through the remainder of the first quarter. Execution and ball movement resulting in two wide-open three-pointers by Kia Nurse were the highlights of the run.

UCLA lead guard Jordin Canada is a big part of the offense. To better utilize her, coach Cori Close shifted her to the off-guard position. UConn, through their transition game, built a 17-point lead at the intermission, leaving the Bruins struggling to find offensive cohesiveness.

Halftime: UConn 48, UCLA 31
Possessions: UConn 36, UCLA 35
Offensive efficiency: UConn 133, UCLA 89

It was imperative that the Bruins get off to a good start in the second half, to both try to alleviate their halftime deficit and get a positive first four minutes to build on and establish momentum. They did that, outscoring UConn by a 9-7 margin.

Close implored her charges to get out and run. Canada can trigger the break, but the Huskies had an answer in their transition defense. While UCLA received some inside effectiveness from 6-foot-4 center Monique Billings, UConn still owned a 65-52 lead through three quarters.

In the fourth quarter, the Bruins could not get the deficit under 13. UConn was in firm command, and still closing on the perimeter and challenging the offense as if it were a one-possession contest despite leading by 17 with four minutes to play. Kari Korver hits a few from the perimeter for the Bruins, but the issue was the fact that although Canada, Korver and Monique Williams had had their moments, they were unable to fire consistently as the Huskies extended their dynastic run one game further.

Possessions: UConn 68, UCLA 67
Offensive efficiency: UConn 127, UCLA 106

Four Factors
Effective field goal percentage: UConn 64, UCLA 45
Free throw rate: UConn 48, UCLA 21
Offensive rebound percentage: UConn 40, UCLA 33
Turnover rate: UConn 21, UCLA 9

Leading scorers:
UConn: Napheesa Collier, 27 points (Effectiveness factor: 49, per minute: 1.36, a superstar designation when using the Linton scale) UCLA: Jordin Canada, 20 points (Effectiveness factor: 32)

What UConn did well: For starters, shoot. The Huskies’ 64 percent eFG mark was aided by an impressive 9-of-20 showing from three-point range.

What UCLA did well: Care for the ball. The Bruins’ outstanding turnover rate was due to just six turnovers on the afternoon.

Ball Control Index:
UConn: 1.57
UCLA: 3.67
Billings led all rebounders with 16 boards. Collier paced the Huskies with 14 rebounds. The 6-foot-1 sophomore dished out five assists as well. UConn finished with four players in double figures, UCLA three. Canada had an outstanding game-high 11 assists against just two turnovers. Katie Lou Samuelson scored 15 points for the Huskies, adding six rebounds. Korver finished with 15 points, shooting 5-of-11; all from three point range, for the Bruins. UConn assisted on 20 of 30 field goals, a 67 percent assist rate.

The key factor, as Close noted, was the first half UConn run. The Bruins recovered from that and basically played even the rest of the way. The damage, though, was done. Rebounding was also an area both UCLA coach and players admitted was not acceptable.

UConn, who will face Oregon in the Bridgeport Regional final Monday night, is now 35-0, while UCLA finishes at 25-9.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

UNC's Final Four dreams remain in sight, but rematch with Kentucky is first on agenda

Roy Williams and North Carolina continue to think long-term, but Tar Heels are not letting championship goals obscure challenge of South Regional final matchup with Kentucky. (Photo by University of North Carolina Athletics)

The fast-paced, 103-100 thriller on December 17 in Las Vegas remains, to some, the best college basketball game of the season.

The two teams who contributed to the high drama in Sin City now have a chance to reprise their holiday epic, as North Carolina and Kentucky face off again in Memphis Sunday evening, this time with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

"We came to North Carolina to be in these types of games, to play against the top players in the country," Justin Jackson said as UNC (30-7) readies for the opportunity to settle a score against the Wildcats, who emerged victorious in the first meeting between the two schools, largely due to Malik Monk's 47 points, the second-largest total scored in a single game against the Tar Heels in program history. "Obviously we played them already once and Malik went crazy, but it's a different team, different time of the year. I think we've gotten better and they've gotten better, but then we've just got to come out and play as hard as possible."

One thing in particular has changed for UNC since their first meeting with Kentucky (32-5) and John Calipari's latest crop of future NBA players. Theo Pinson, who was injured in the first half of the season, has since returned, and is being counted on to make a difference in limiting the Wildcats' multi-pronged offensive attack.

"Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game," said Kennedy Meeks of Pinson's impact and likely matchup with Monk, the precocious sharpshooter who has established himself as a projected lottery pick in June's NBA Draft. "That's just the type of effect that he has. Even though all of us get tired sometimes, I think he's definitely one of the best defenders. He does a great job of coming in the game and giving us a lift."

As the Tar Heels continue to drive themselves toward a chance to atone for the heartbreaking end to last season's national championship game, a storyline that has naturally gathered more steam as the calendar delves further into March, their desire to rewrite the ending has never been more apparent. But first, a different kind of revenge lies in front of UNC to be exacted before anyone can board a plane to Arizona, that being the chance to get even with Kentucky.

"We understand what we're trying to do, get back to the Final Four, have another chance at the national title game," Pinson reiterated. "But we've got to take care of tomorrow's game first. Those guys, they're young, but they're still hungry. They want to be there too. It's going to be an all-out dogfight."

The biggest reason why UNC is even in the South Regional final echoed Pinson's sentiment.

"You can look at experience and what we've been through," said Joel Berry II, who scored 26 points in Friday's win over Butler, when asked what the Tar Heels' biggest motivators have been. "I know there's a lot of pressure on the game because (if) you lose, you go home. We just have to realize our ultimate goal and what we want to do, and then we've just got to be ready to play tomorrow and just realize that tomorrow is the important game. We'll worry about the Final Four and that stuff later on."