NEW YORK — It had been Sindarius Thornwell’s game and week and tournament thus far. Now, it would be his celebration too. The brilliant, charismatic senior guard clung the East Regional trophy to his chest, where it pressed the nylon net draped around his neck, a head’s length from the black REGIONAL CHAMPIONS snapback he wore as a backward crown, as he swayed through a mob of his giddy, garnet-clad South Carolina teammates gathered near the three-point line. There he found PJ Dozier, the Gamecocks’ budding sophomore guard holding court with a small cluster of reporters and TV cameramen. Thornwell, the do-it-all star who had spent the weekend taking over wins against higher seeds, now put his arm around Dozier and took over the interview too. “Tell ‘em we had an 80% chance of losing, P!” he shouted, citing a probability projection he had seen in the media. “Tell ‘em that! And we secured the bag. How ‘bout that?”
How about this: South Carolina, a No. 7 seed from an oft-maligned, football-mad conference with virtually no significant modern basketball history of which to boast, is now heading to the first Final Four in program history, improbably, defiantly, barging into the season’s final weekend without consideration of expectations. It beat Florida 77–70 on Sunday in much the same manner it had knocked off Baylor and Duke in the games before it, with a grueling, invasive defense and the all-around excellence of Thornwell, complemented by an emergent supporting cast. The Gamecocks had been picked to finish eighth in the SEC in the preseason and by virtually no one to advance deeply in the tournament once they qualified, and now they were on the floor of Madison Square Garden as toasts of the sport. “We showed the world today,” Thornwell said, continuing his interview-crashing rant. “And we got two more games.”
Around him the revelry carried on, Frank Sinatra blaring from the p.a. system as the court teemed with garnet-and-black hugs. Frank Martin, who left Kansas State in 2012 to coach a program that had not reached the NCAA tournament since 2004 and had not won a game in it since 1973, embraced his mother, whom he later called the strongest woman he’d ever met. On the other end of the floor his wife, Anya, told reporters about how even she had questioned Martin’s move to South Carolina but that she had never known him to steer clear of a challenge. The country singer Darius Rucker, an alumnus, meandered the court with moist eyes and recounted his comments to a friend in the stands during the game. “We’re in the Garden watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that 10 years ago, I’d have told you that you were on crack.”
Their road to that surreal setting had begun five years earlier when Martin, whose relationship with his athletic director had deteriorated over his five seasons helming Kansas State, decided to bet that if a school known for its football program could succeed in women’s basketball then perhaps it could in men’s too. He won 14 games in each of his first two seasons, crept up to 17–16 in 2014–15, then finally broke through to 25 wins last season, which ended in a disappointing bid in the NIT. His fledgling tenure had gotten its first jolt of legitimacy in his initial season, when Thornwell, a four-star recruit from Lancaster, pledged to stay in state to play for the Gamecocks. Two years later, Dozier, a five-star prospect from down the road in Columbia whose father and sister both played at South Carolina, opted to join him. “[Martin] decided to come to South Carolina and build,” Thornwell said. “And we did too.”
That slow build continued into this week’s crescendo, gaining volume with last Sunday’s resounding, thrilling dispatching of No. 2 seed Duke, and continuing through Friday’s 20-point dominance of No. 3 seed Baylor. That victory earned them a third meeting with Florida, an SEC foe with whom they had split two regular-season games, in an oddball Elite Eight matchup that saw two fanbases known for their gridiron passions fill a northeastern hoops mecca with decibel levels befitting a Saturday in October. The Gators had won the tournament’s greatest thriller to date, on an overtime buzzer beater against Wisconsin some 37 hours earlier, and their coach, Mike White, had expressed worry over his team’s mental and physical fatigue. That South Carolina’s dogged and aggressive defense awaited them surely did little to quell such concerns.
Yet the Gators came out chomping, seemingly undeterred by the Gamecocks’ pressure that they had already seen in January and February. South Carolina forced eight Florida turnovers in the game’s stuttering first 12 minutes, but the Gators continued moving the ball to find catch-and-shoot opportunities, ultimately knocking down five of 12 three-pointers. Thornwell’s steady and crafty 15 first-half points kept South Carolina afloat, but still trailing by seven at the break.
Here the Gamecocks found cause for hope. They had trailed by the same margin when the two teams met in Columbia on Jan. 18, a game the hosts wound up winning by four. And just one week prior they had trailed the vaunted Blue Devils by seven too, before winning by just as much. “We look at the second half as our half,” said sophomore Hassani Gravett. “Our defense wears people out. We knew if we could keep putting pressure on them and getting up in them, eventually they’re gonna fold.”
All season, Thornwell has urged the Gamecocks to “secure the bag,” a lyric from the rapper Lil Uzi Vert that Thornwell repurposed as a mantra urging his teammates to leave no effort unspent. Where the Gators’ energy waned after the break, South Carolina’s only intensified. Florida looked stymied and sped up, forcing flailing shots (and ultimately missing all 14 of their second-half three-pointers). The Gamecocks continued to pound the ball inside, where they scored 28 of their first 43 points, and put the Gators into such foul trouble that South Carolina spent the final 15 minutes in the bonus, eventually taking 28 second-half free throws. Dozier attacked the basket repeatedly on his way to 17 points. Maik Kotsar, a freshman forward from Estonia, scored 12 points, his most since the first day of December, including a tip-in that gave South Carolina its first second-half lead with 11:28 to play.
Now the bag could be secured. As the teams traded buckets, Thornwell scored eight straight points in a two minute span, then later made a pair of free throws with 2:23 left that gave the Gamecocks a lead they would not relinquish. On the next possession he stole the ball from Florida’s Kasey Hill and broke away in transition before dumping it to Kotsar for a short jumper that doubled the lead just under the two-minute mark. “He was prepared for the moment,” Thornwell, who scored 26, said of his pass.
“The moment, when I made the shot, just I felt like it's going to go in, so take the shot,” Kotsar said. “Nothing more to it.”
There would be little more to the game either, the final two minutes mostly traded baskets and free throws. The Gators would not be within a basket for the final 40 seconds, and on their last possession they mustered two more wayward, futile chucks. The second one clanked just as the horn sounded and bounded toward Thornwell who, of course, secured the ball. And then he flung it as high as he could, upward and onward.