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."