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For One Night, South Carolina Basketball Is the Toast of the Nation

A celebration of the Gamecocks’ most significant NCAA tournament win in 44 years — over Duke, no less

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

With 11:23 left in the second half on Sunday, South Carolina freshman guard Rakym Felder drilled a 3-pointer from about halfway between the arc and half court to put the Gamecocks up 52–48 against Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and I thought to myself, “They’re going to win this game.”

I didn’t dare say it out loud, because while I’m pretty sure my own sports fan arrogance doesn’t affect the balance of the universe in such a way that it might have snapped Sindarius Thornwell’s hamstrings, you can never be too sure.

Before this weekend, the last time South Carolina won an NCAA tournament game, Mike Dunleavy scored 11 points. Yes, I know Mike Dunleavy went to Duke — I’m talking about his dad, who was a freshman guard on the 1972–73 Gamecocks team.

A year after their last NCAA tournament loss in 2004, and in between their back-to-back NIT titles, I started my freshman year in Columbia, and since then, honestly, most of the time the men’s basketball team has just been too depressing to be worth getting invested in — basketball was just something that left you mildly disappointed for the two months between the end of football season and the start of baseball season.

While Dawn Staley led the women’s team to the highest standard of excellence you can have without being UConn, since 2002, the men wandered aimlessly under Kind Grandpa Dave Odom until 2008, then 1980s Teen Comedy Bad Guy Darrin Horn, who wore out his welcome with three losing seasons in four years, getting fired in 2012.

It took Horn’s replacement, Frank Martin, five years to undo not only the damage to the state of the program, but four decades’ worth of psychic damage to a fan base that, notwithstanding baseball, equestrian, and a couple of fits and starts in football, has known nothing but heartbreak across the board. In 2014, Martin signed five-star Columbia native PJ Dozier, and last year he briefly brought the Gamecocks back to the top 25 for the first time in more than a decade before falling just barely on the wrong side of the tournament bubble with a school-record-tying 25 wins.

Carolina shot 7-for-35 in the first half, but trailed by only seven thanks to suffocating defense. One of two things would have to give in the second half: Either Carolina would stop missing every single jumper, or Duke would have to stop turning the ball over every third time down the floor.

The Gamecocks went 20-for-28 from the floor in the second half.

And a few of those shots were spectacles: Beyond Felder’s 28-foot bomb, there was a thunderous alley-oop by Chris Silva, and a crucial put-back by Thornwell, the talismanic senior guard who led the team in scoring, rebounding, and steals, and finished second in assists and blocks en route to SEC Player of the Year honors.

Dozier fouled out, and the Gamecocks couldn’t break the Blue Devils’ press, but it didn’t matter. Suddenly Duke was out, and South Carolina was in the Sweet 16 — both South Carolina teams, in fact, because as the men were tipping off against Duke, Staley’s women’s team was wrapping up a squeaker over Arizona State back in Columbia. Alex English was taking cellphone photos from the floor, and Martin, wearing a plaid blazer and garnet pants, looking like Vince McMahon dressed as Red Forman from That ’70s Show, was weeping openly on television.

The thing about keeping disappointment bottled up for 44 years is how those feelings combust when they’re finally let out.

As I write, 10 of the 12 most recent posts on my Facebook feed are friends from college who have traded in words for chicken emoji. (One of the other two is from a high school friend who went to North Carolina and jumped in on Duke schadenfreude, which I respect.)

As USC (yeah, I know, but it’s the biggest win in school history and the Trojans just lost, so let us have this one) stretched the lead to four, resignation changed to fear; as the lead grew to seven, then 10 points, fear melted into hope. My dad texted my brother (a junior at South Carolina who called this upset on Thursday because he’s too young to have developed pessimism as a defense mechanism) and me to see how we were coping. My Twitter feed jumped on the bandwagon out of hatred for Duke, and all of a sudden it felt like the world was cheering this historically shit-ass ball club on like it was the Jamaican bobsled team.

Sure, they’re cheering because Duke lost, and America will soon show more interest in Jayson Tatum’s draft stock and mocking Luke Kennard than in the undergrads swimming in the fountain in front of the Thomas Cooper Library tonight. But for now, lift a glass for this also-ran, this multisport punching bag for Clemson, this nationwide mascot-derived penis joke, that for half an hour won the affection of a nation.

Here’s a health, Carolina, forever to thee.