NEW YORK — It began in a graceless chaos of bumped bodies and wayward shots, reminiscent of the ugliness enacted by the defenses of the last good NBA teams to call this storied arena home. It ended with Madison Square Garden rising into an ovation as South Carolina players rushed onto the floor in celebration and then gathered in a circle at center court to wrap their arms around the Baylor team they had just beaten. In the time between South Carolina did what this South Carolina team does (played stifling defense that practically pestered its opponent into submission) and will now do what its program has never done: play in the Elite Eight.
The No. 7 Gamecocks' 70–50 win over No. 3 Baylor was as lopsided as its final score, a complete victory in which aesthetics were largely ditched in favor of brute effectiveness. South Carolina blanketed (and, for seven first-half minutes, blanked) the Bears’ offense on its way to a 15-point halftime lead that only grew after the break; the game swayed so far in the Gamecocks’ direction that Baylor closing the gap to 13 points with 11 minutes left felt like a threat of momentum. But it would not be nearly enough. In all, the Bears shot just 30.4% from the field, a testament not only to poor shooting but also what they had to shoot against.
South Carolina, with no tourney bids before this March since 2004, and no tourney wins before last Friday since 1973, is now 40 minutes from the Final Four. Here are three thoughts on how the Gamecocks took their latest step there:
1. Baylor was big, but South Carolina played bigger
When Sindarius Thornwell was asked during Thursday’s media day what he knew about Baylor, the beginning of his answer was as succinct as it was accurate: “They’re big, man.” The Bears, led by a frontline of bruising 6’ 10” forward Johnathan Motley and lithe 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil, had averaged 45 points in the paint over their first two NCAA tournament wins. The Gamecocks, however, had allowed just 19 paint points per game thus far, meaning something had to give. And it did, decisively: South Carolina muscled up and smothered Baylor inside, completely disrupting the higher seed’s blueprint for success.
Motley and Lual-Acail were regularly swallowed up in an array of swatting, probing limbs, giving them practically no room to work. The Bears airballed three short-range shots in the first four minutes, and spent much of the rest of the first half chucking up awkward, off-balance attempts deep into the shot clock. The work being done by South Carolina forwards Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar was augmented by spot work from the 6’ 5” Thornwell, who bumped with Motley and disrupted entry passes for spells as well. The effect was a muting of the Bears’ strongest strength, and with it their team.
2. The Gamecocks are more than Thornwell
This is to take nothing away from the charismatic SEC Player of the Year, who has rightly broken out into tourney-hero status thanks to his first-weekend performances and long-underrated, all-around excellence. And while Thornwell indeed starred against Baylor, scoring 23 points and grabbing six rebounds, he was joined in double-figure scoring by guards Duane Notice (11 points, including 3-for-4 three-point shooting) and PJ Dozier (12 points) and Silva, a forward who had 12 points and seven rebounds. A dependable, go-to star can be an important ingredient on unexpectedly deep March runs, but even Kemba Walker had Jeremy Lamb. Thornwell is fully capable of putting a team on his back, but when he doesn’t have to—and when his teammates can exploit the opportunities created by the extra defensive attention he draws—well, this is the kind of game that can happen.
3. But seriously: That. Defense.
Thursday, during the requisite discussion of just how exactly South Carolina managed to so thoroughly stun and KO Duke on Sunday, sophomore guard Hassani Gravett was asked whether the reputation of their second-round opponent had factored into their pre-game thoughts. His answer revealed not only his team’s mindset in that game but also the larger truth of just how exactly that same South Carolina team is now in the Elite Eight.
“Going into the game, I think some guys looked at it like, ‘Man, almighty Duke and Coach K,’” Gravett said then. “But as we started playing with them, we were like, ‘These guys are just another team.’ Our defense is unbelievable. We’ve got the best defense in the country. So once we started getting stops and everything, we felt like we could definitely beat these guys.”
That is the effect that the Gamecocks’ nonstop, all-up-on-you defense can have, capable of reducing any opponent into a flustered mess of missed shots and aborted drives. Frankly it can nearly be exhausting just to watch up close. South Carolina grants no quarter to anybody, and if the other team’s shots are slow to fall, desperation can mount quickly. It does not have a flashy name or a unique schematic quirk, but it can dominate and dictate the entire flow of the game. And when it’s paired with an emergent star and timely supplemental scoring, it’s hard to say how far it will keep going.