COLUMBIA, S.C. — As Sindarius Thornwell eyed his senior season back in October, one game in particular stood out above the rest.
A Dec. 12 game against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden caught the South Carolina star’s attention, giving him the certain regular-season highlight of final run as a Gamecock.
“The biggest thing for me is I get to play in the Garden,” Thornwell said at the time.
Come December, Thornwell wasn’t on the court when the game started. Instead the senior was serving the second game of a six-game suspension for an unspecified violation of athletic department policy, sidelined in the game he was most looking forward to playing.
He was relegated to the bench, left to watch the game that he dreamed of playing in as his teammates played that day and lost 67-64 to the Pirates.
“It killed me,” Thornwell said. “When we had shootaround that day, that was like my game. I got to shoot and play. I was like a kid on the court.”
Thanks to South Carolina’s incredible weekend in Greenville, the highlight of Thornwell’s senior season is coming to be after all — and in even bigger fashion. After the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in 44 years on Friday against Marquette and its upset Duke on Sunday, the Gamecocks are headed back to the self-billed World’s Greatest Arena for the Sweet 16 and Thornwell will get to play at Madison Square Garden.
“Finally to get a chance to play on the court is a blessing,” Thornwell said. “I feel like it all worked out in our favor.”
South Carolina faces No. 3 seed Baylor at 7:29 p.m. Friday night at the Garden. A win would pit the Gamecocks against either No. 4 Florida or No. 8 Wisconsin in the Elite 8.
It’s fortuitous that the season unfolded this way for Thornwell and the Gamecocks, with the team landing in the East region of the NCAA Tournament. But looking back now, the senior guard’s suspension might have been a blessing in disguise for USC. Without the would-be SEC player of the year, the team incurred its bumps losing three of six games, but also was challenged to grow without its leader on the floor.
“It was a blessing for me and it helped our team out a lot in a ways,” Thornwell said. “Guys had to step up and step out of their roles a little bit more. When I came back, everybody was more comfortable, more confident in their abilities and able to do more to help the team be successful. For me, it humbled me a lot from the aspect of appreciating everything and not taking anything for granted.”
Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said he hurt for Thornwell when he couldn’t play at Madison Square Garden, feeling the same way he does when he has to punish his 9-year-old at home.
“It makes you think that you are a cruel human being,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, we as the adults have to make decisions to help these guys learn, grow and mature and hope that they get another opportunity so they realize how lucky they are. As they get older, they probably don’t ever get a second opportunity.”
On Sunday, Thornwell drew motivation from the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden at last. He scored 24 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists as the Gamecocks beat Duke to reach South Carolina’s first Sweet 16 since 1973.
With all the clips of famous players, games and plays made on the court in his head, Thornwell finally will get his chance to play where he’s always dreamed of playing.
“God rewards people, not that are perfect, but who handle their business the right way,” Martin said. “He has handled his business the right way. Now, he gets an opportunity to play in the place he wants to play at.”