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South Carolina Is the Final Four’s Street-Fighting Cinderella

It wasn’t pretty, but the Gamecocks are going to Phoenix

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I wrote the ecstatic Pinnacle of South Carolina Basketball post last week because I thought the Sweet 16 was the Gamecocks’ realistic ceiling — break the 44-year NCAA tournament losing streak, upset Duke, pack it in. This was never supposed to be on the table.

Oops.

South Carolina’s 77–70 win over Florida on Sunday was the most stressful kind of basketball game — no double-digit leads, no narrative arc, and only one run of substance. Apart from the Gators’ 3-pointer binge to end the first half, this was two hours of Florida and South Carolina trading buckets and kidney punches. Two hours of emotional constipation, of looking at the ceiling and cringing, waiting for that one KeVaughn Allen 3-pointer to finally break the game open and send the Gators off over the horizon.

After years of perceiving victory as a way to set up a more disappointing defeat later on, a crushing last-second loss to a rival in the Elite Eight after three straight wins seemed inevitable. Even after the Gamecocks made it a two-possession game, and even as Florida’s shooters tightened up in the final minute, it didn’t feel real, much less safe, until Duane Notice scored the game’s final basket and put the Gators to … well, not the sword, exactly. A sword is elegant — the Gamecocks are more of a blunt object type of team.

It was a game ideally suited to South Carolina coach Frank Martin’s pressure defense and Stone Age offense (26 field goals, seven assists, 2-for-10 on 3-pointers). When they put up a statue of Martin outside Colonial Life Arena, they can just slap a plaque on a 10-foot-high stone box.

The game also suited South Carolina’s frontcourt of Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, whom I wouldn’t necessarily trust to catch a pass, but I’d heavily bet on to win a tire-iron fight to the death. It suited Sindarius Thornwell to the tune of 26 points, with 21 of them coming either at the line or in the paint.

Meanwhile, on Monday night, Dawn Staley will lead the South Carolina women against Florida State in an Elite Eight game in which the Gamecocks will be heavily favored. Only five games to go until Thornwell and A’ja Wilson can recreate that Emeka Okafor–Diana Taurasi ESPN the Magazine cover. However unlikely that seems, we’re already in uncharted territory.