Almost five years ago to the day, when South Carolina hired Frank Martin to rebuild its basketball program, the firebrand coach made a promise.
“We will put 18,000 in this place every game,” he said.
Martin was referring to Colonial Life Arena at the time. But on Sunday, there were surely that many Gamecocks fans turning Madison Square Garden into a raucous party, soaking up one of the most shocking Final Four runs in recent memory.
South Carolina — a school that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since Richard Nixon was president — rallied from a 7-point halftime deficit to upset fourth-seeded Florida, 77-70, in its first ever Elite Eight appearance.
The fearless Gamecocks played furious defense, knocking an established Gators squad completely out of its element down the stretch, while bona fide star Sindarius Thornwell went off for a game-high 26 points. UF’s 16 turnovers and its horrendous second-half 3-point shooting, as ugly as they were, merely underscored South Carolina’s stifling defensive energy.
Senior Duane Notice capped off the biggest minute in program history with style, throwing down an authoritative one-handed dunk in the game’s waning seconds.
Who could’ve ever imagined this?
When Martin took over, South Carolina had just gone 2-14 in the SEC. In the afterglow of the biggest moment of his career, Martin called himself “the luckiest human being in the world” — but, without question, there was no luck involved in this performance.
“It’s all these guys. They’ve been with us for a while. They believe in each other,” Martin said. “They put up with me, and go out and do it better the next day. They have the courage of a lion.”
When the game could’ve easily slipped out of reach, South Carolina showed no panic, just as it did against Marquette and Duke. Thornwell, the glue that holds this Cinderella squad together, dipped into the same bag of tricks that netted him SEC Player of the Year honors: He created, he dazzled, he frustrated and he scored.
In the game’s most critical stretch, the gallant guard went off for 8 straight points and drew two fouls to help keep the pressure on Florida, and his defense contributed to the Gators going ice cold from beyond the arc after halftime.
Thornwell’s final line: 26 points, including a 9 of 10 mark from the charity stripe, to go with 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a dish to Maik Kotsar, whose jumper put the Gamecocks up by 4 at the 1:55 mark.
“We’ve been in that situation before… We just went in with the mindset that the game’s not over,” Thornwell said.
Now we’re left looking at South Carolina basketball, which until the arrival of Martin and Thornwell hadn’t accomplished anything of significance in decades, and wondering what to make of it.
Is it unreasonable to call Thornwell’s senior season the best performance in program history? Is it crazy to say that in the past month, Martin has already asserted himself as the team’s best coach ever?
Martin has guided a young squad that came wobbling into the tournament through four — four — elite opponents.
Frank McGuire, the winningest coach in program history, needed seven seasons to even reach the NCAA Tournament at South Carolina. He needed five seasons to reach the 20-win mark. His excellence was sustained over a longer period of time, sure, but with time Martin can surpass McGuire in that area, too.
And then there’s Thornwell, who in the last four games has averaged nearly 26 points and 7.5 rebounds. Two of those performances came against teams that rank top-16 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom (Florida and Baylor).
John Roche won a pair of ACC player of the year awards, Alex English was a force on the court and BJ McKie guided the Gamecocks to their only SEC championship. But precious few players in school history match Thornwell’s blend of scoring and defensive excellence, and of the aforementioned players, only English won an NCAA Tournament game.
If Thornwell does not go down as the greatest hoops player in South Carolina history — and there are potentially two more tremendous opportunities for his legend to grow — then he is, at the least, a top-3 player all-time.
The Gamecocks are in uncharted territory now. Regardless of how the Gonzaga game turns out, their dramatic tourney run has completely changed their perception and future expectations. Thornwell, Notice and Justin McKie (BJ McKie’s son) will graduate, but the team’s young trio of Maik Kotsar (12 points), Chris Silva (13 points) and PJ Dozier (17 points) is here to stay. “We want Zion” Williamson chants are suddenly a very real thing.
Suddenly, basketball is a source of pride at South Carolina, and to the average outsider it feels… weird. Martin, Thornwell and the rest of these lovable underdogs have done the impossible, and the nation has noticed.
As for expecting 18,000 to show up for South Carolina’s home opener next November? Yeah, it seems a safe bet that Martin’s promise will hold true there, too.
- HISTORY! South Carolina basketball beats Florida, heads to the Final Four
- Gamecocks’ Sindarius Thornwell goes from playing on mailboxes to SEC’s best
SOUTH CAROLINA WITH THE EXCLAMATION POINT pic.twitter.com/wwFmvx20C8
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 26, 2017