NEW YORK — The third showdown this season between Florida and South Carolina was every bit worth the marquee stage and spotlight it got Sunday inside Madison Square Garden.
The SEC foes, who split their two regular-season meetings, traded big plays the entire second half, with every shot, every rebound, every foul down the stretch drawing a passionate response from the sold-out crowd of 20,047 as the lead kept changing and momentum was ever-tenuous.
In the end, No. 7-seeded South Carolina was just a little better when it mattered most, pulling away over the final minute for a 77-70 win over No. 4 Florida to advance to the Final Four next week.
For the Gators, a breakthrough postseason run comes to a tough end.
“Obviously very, very heartbreaking,” Florida coach Mike White said. “To make it this far, you’re right there with a chance to go to the Final Four, you’re up 7 at halftime, doing some good things and really we weren’t playing our best basketball in the first half. … And for whatever reason, in the second half, we couldn’t match that same defensive intensity. Again, which wasn’t an A, but it was pretty good, it was probably a B for us. I thought South Carolina made all the plays that they needed to.”
Florida (27-9) was in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 and was challenging for a Final Four berth in just White’s second season. Reaching the Elite Eight was an accomplishment in itself, but that didn’t lessen the disappointment any Sunday.
The postgame locker room was understandably somber as the players came to grips with the end of their season.
“It was a great season, we had a good run. I’m proud of my guys we got this far. I’m just sad it had to end today the way it did,” junior forward Devin Robinson said.
Said senior guard Canyon Barry: “I’m proud of this team, I’m proud of what we accomplished this year. We had a lot of wins, so look back, it was a good season. It didn’t end how we wanted it to, but it’s got to end at some point. I’m just sad it was today.”
South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell was the difference, scoring a game-high 26 points while PJ Dozier added 17 for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Maik Kotsar scored 12.
Senior forward Justin Leon led Florida with 18 points and came out hot from the perimeter, but the Gators went 0-for-14 from 3-point range as a group in the second half. It was an eerily similar cold spell to the one in their first meeting with the Gamecocks, when they went 0-for-17 from 3 for the game.
And still, it remarkably remained a one-possession game for a stretch of 14 minutes and 40 seconds in the second half.
Florida had gone into halftime ahead 40-33 before that gap was narrowed quickly to set up the frenetic finish.
South Carolina would retake the lead, 49-48, with 11:28 left on a tip-in by Kotsar, but the Gators soon pulled ahead again on back-to-back second-chance points by Leon, who aggressively followed his teammates’ misses with a pair of clutch baskets. He also drew a foul the second time and drained the free throw to give Florida a 53-51 lead with 9:23 left.
The back-and-forth had only just begun.
Dozier tied it for South Carolina. KeVaughn Allen tossed up a high lob on a drive to the basket to retake the lead for Florida. Thornwell tied it again for the Gamecocks with two free throws. Kasey Hill reclaimed the lead for the Gators with two of his own. Thornwell went back to the line for two more to tie it yet again.
Thornwell then reversed the order, scoring on a layup with 5:35 left to give South Carolina a 59-57 advantage. To which Hill responded with a tough drive and layup on the other end. Thornwell countered with another layup to make it 61-59, but Allen tied it for Florida with two free throws.
Back and forth, back and forth.
Chris Chiozza, the hero Friday night for the Gators, turned a steal into a fastbreak layup and a 63-61 lead. And Silva promptly erased it on the other end with a layup.
Punch, counter punch.
It was a captivating duel between two teams with the same goal but different storylines at stake.
Florida was looking to further announce its resurgence as a national contender under White, while South Carolina was in the Elite Eight for the first time with almost no history of postseason success, looking to take a memorable March to the next level.
Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year for the Gamecocks, would ultimately make that happen.
His spin move through the lane sent him to the line with 2:24 on the clock, and he knocked down two more free throws for a 65-63 lead.
Thornwell then forced a turnover from Hill on the other end and Kotsar made it count with a jumper to push the Gamecocks’ lead to 67-63 as a “USC, USC, USC” chant drowned out the Florida band during an ensuing timeout.
Kevarrius Hayes tossed in a layup for Florida, Dozier hit two free throws for South Carolina and Silva made one of two to put the Gamecocks’ lead at 70-65. A layup and free throw by Allen with 53.7 seconds left made it a 2-point game again, but Chiozza was whistled for a quick foul on Duane Notice that led to two more free throws and a 4-point margin.
White said later the Gators did not want to foul there, but he declined to comment on the officiating. Chiozza would later express his own frustration.
Thornwell forced another Florida turnover with 40.4 seconds left, stealing the ball from Robinson. Silva drew a quick foul and only hit 1 of 2 at the line, but the 5-point deficit was too much to overcome for Florida by that point.
Another Gators turnover later led to a Notice dunk with 11 seconds left that put a stamp on the Gamecocks’ win.
“When we look back at this, we’re probably going to be like, we should have a won,” Chiozza said. “Just a lot of little things throughout the game. The 50-50 balls, we came up with some of them, but not enough. Just the small things like allowing them to get a lot of offensive rebounds the second half, and just the fouls as well that we normally don’t commit but they called them tonight.”
Said Hill: “They were just the better team honestly, that’s all it was.”
White, meanwhile, touched on the positives of the season during his postgame news conference, but later talking outside the media room with a group of reporters he also offered a candid critique of his team.
“We saw some of the ugly stuff come back out that we’ve seen a few times this year, that we saw a lot last year. I didn’t like our body language down the stretch. They threw the last few blows,” White said. “Just walking over to timeouts in the last couple (minutes), I hadn’t seen the doubt, that look in their eyes. I hadn’t seen that in quite in some time. We didn’t have that winning look in our eyes. It showed in lack of execution offensively. It showed in some of the loose balls late that we didn’t get, a free throw line block-out that we missed that led to an extra possession. Those were some of the things that failed us in the second half.”
Player of the game: Sindarius Thornwell
The South Carolina standout was at his best Sunday, scoring a game-high 26 points on 8-13 shooting.
He finished 8-of-13 from the field and 9-of-10 from the line while added 7 rebounds and those 2 big steals late.
“We had 11 guys I think that dressed out, I think we tried 12 on Thornwell and it just didn’t work. The guy, he’s a handful,” White said.
It took until the couple minutes, but those late turnovers by the Gators opened the door for South Carolina to finally put some separation on the scoreboard.
They didn’t execute in those final minutes and the Gamecocks did. Simple as that.
Florida-South Carolina box score
*Courtesy of ESPN.