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
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
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
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
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.