NEW YORK — South Carolina's improbable Final Four run can best be summed up with a movie that, at40 years old, still came after the Gamecocks' last appearance in the Sweet 16, let aloneFinal Four: "Rocky."
The late-game jam South Carolina's Duane Notice threw down was more like the right cross Balboa landed on rival Apollo Creed in "Rocky II."It put the Gamecocks up by sevenover Florida with 11 ticks left, and — apart from helping the Gamecocks to a 77-70 win — delivered one message loud and clear: Don't sleep on us.
"I knew he could dunk, but I thought he was just going tocatch it and dribble it out," said teammate Hassani Gravett, leaning back in his chair and smiling a country mile wide. "But when he did that, man, I almost backflipped on the bench. It was crazy."
You would expect a back-and-forth affair from two Southeastern Conferenceteams. The conference has a reputation for tough, nasty defenses and competitive teams — just not in basketball. That reputation likely changed with this year's tournament.
Sunday's matchup wasn't as much a basketball game as it was a heavyweight bout.
No. 7seed South Carolina withstood a first-half barrage that saw Florida deliverhaymaker after haymaker. The Gators eventually finished the halfup by seven after going7 for 12 from 3-point land. But the Gamecocks didn't spit their mouthguardout on the stool.
"Coming out of halftime, we knew we had to win the first four minutes," Gamecocks starSindariusThornwelltold Sporting News.
The Gamecocks did just that,comingup with a key defensive stop on the firstpossession of the second half. They crankedtheir perimeter defense upto 11, allowing zero 3-point baskets on 14 attempts in the second half. Clearly, South Carolina changed up its defenseand rolled with Florida's power punches.
"Our defense fatigued them," Gravett said. "They weren't able to hit as many shots, they didn't have as much energy."
"We knew we had to come out and guard," Notice said. "They made seven 3s, when they beat us the second time we played them (Feb. 21 in Gainesville), they made nine 3s. So we knew we had to protect the 3-point line if we wanted to win the game."
The game was nothing short of those fight montages from the"Rocky" flicks. South Carolina's version of Mickey Goldmill —Frank Martin — never let his foot off the gas. With the game tied 2-2, he was already barking at his team, warning it notto get complacent. Now, he and his players have taken the program to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Martin's message might not have been about chasing chickens and greasy, fast speed, but it was about believingin each another — and holding each other accountable.
"Coach got on me about missing a defensive assignment," Thornwell(the Rocky Balboa of our story) said. "He showed us how they were attacking us, and we stayed with it."
Gen. Thornwell's message to the team remained unchanged. "Secure the bag."
"Secure the bag, that's his message," P.J. Dozier told SN. "We just had to stay the course. That's what coach was preaching. That's what Sinwas preaching to us. We had to continue to come out and fight."
And fight they did. Thornwellagain threw efficient punches. He scored 26 points, including 10 in a row in the second half. He was named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player.
Sindarius Thornwell and the Gamecocks knock out the Gators. (Getty Images)
"Other players don't have consistency," South Carolina forwardChris Silva said. "The only thing we can rely on is Sin. He comes in every day, he always picks us up, be ready to lead, do whatever it takes for the team to move forward. All we try to do is give him support."
"That's the best player on the team," Gravett said. "That's one of the best players in the country. That's what big-time players do. Idon't think people around this whole country have given him enough credit. He's definitelya great leader, he's talkative. Obviously, he's leading us in, what, every category?"
And of course, just like the first "Rocky," all the Gamecocks needed was a chance. Now, they'll use it to try togo the distance.
"All we wanted was to make it," Thornwell said. "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, we'll take, the rest takes care of itself. All we wanted was a chance."