GLENDALE, Ariz. — South Carolina basketball never liked the Cinderella team label in the days leading up to the Final Four. It diminished the hard work put in, games won and confidence players had in each other.
And when the moment finally arrived, the Gamecocks played in such a way that proved they were not.
“I never considered us a Cinderella,” freshman forward Maik Kotsar said. “We just played it one game at a time and tried to do our best every game.”
That was a common refrain from the Gamecocks, who constantly preached taking the tournament one game at a time after getting in and finding pressure relieved after a difficult regular-season stretch.
Saturday night in Glendale made those moments in February seem distant, though, as the Gamecocks battled all the way to the final moments with No. 1-seeded Gonzaga. And there was no question by the end of the night that USC belonged in the moment and was on par with the teams in the Final Four.
“I think everybody saw Gamecock basketball on a national stage and they saw what we are about: Intensity, passion and toughness, caring about one another and everyone saw that,” senior guard Justin McKie said. “That was one of our goals and we did that.”
They did it with what Gonzaga coach Mark Few called “the heart of a lion” as USC came back from a 14-point deficit to take a lead with 7:06 to play. They fell barely short, losing 77-73 and showing they were not just some Cinderella team running their way into history.
“Our opponents know that and teams that we face,” freshman guard Rakym Felder said. “I think people are starting to realize that and I think that word is just out there. I think we proved to everybody that we can play with the big dogs. We have more years to come. This program is on the rise.”