NEW YORK — Sindarius Thornwell’s celebration started with a light jog down the court at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. Then it was a screaming chest bump after Duane Notice put the exclamation point on a Final Four-clinching win with a leap, dunk and moment for the South Carolina basketball history books.
It only got better from there for the senior, the heart and star of a South Carolina team never expected to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament soaking in every ounce of the biggest moment of his basketball career to date.
A half hour or so later, Thornwell bounced through the congested court at almost the same spot he was when Notice’s dunk went through the hoop, sending South Carolina one step farther on its improbable barge into the Final Four. With the net coach Frank Martin cut down and threw to him draped around his neck, a regional champs snap back on backward and the East Regional trophy clutched adoringly in his right arm, Thornwell finally found the platform to share the message he was about to deliver at center court during the celebration before finding out the microphone was turned off.
Amid the pandemonium on the court, Thornwell crashed in on PJ Dozier’s interview, just as he and the Gamecocks have crashed the NCAA Tournament. He draped his arm around Dozier and told a few a message for the world.
“Tell them we had an 80 percent chance of losing, P,” Thornwell bellowed with a monstrous grin. “ESPN had us with an 80 percent chance of losing. How ‘bout that?
“Secure the bag. How ‘bout that?
“We won. How ‘bout that?”
How ‘bout that indeed. The South Carolina Gamecocks are in the Final Four, another history-making, program-changing, never-before-seen moment in a fantastical 10-day run through March.
Gone are the No. 2-seeded Duke Blue Devils, No. 3 Baylor Bears and No. 4 Florida Gators; all that is left standing is the No. 7-seeded Gamecocks — the third No. 7 seed to make the Final Four in the past four years. Oh and as Thornwell wanted the world to know: The Gamecocks were given only a 20 percent chance to beat Florida after only a 29 percent chance to beat Baylor and a 17 percent chance to beat Duke, according to ESPN metrics.
And then Thornwell talked about what’s next, with the possibility of facing two one seeds in Phoenix as the Gamecocks will be underdogs again.
“We showed the world today,” Thornwell said. “And we got two more games.”
Yes, South Carolina basketball is talking about the idea of playing for a national championship on April 3 and this is real life. But barely two weeks ago, the notion would have drawn laughter.
The Gamecocks lost six of their final nine games down the stretch of the season, slumping at the wrong time of year to the point that questions about the team missing the NCAA Tournament in heartbreaking fashion for the second straight year returned.
So how did South Carolina become a different team in such a short span? It didn’t.
“That’s how you guys feel. But to us, we are the same team,” Notice said. “We just want to get better every day. Our defense, we pride ourselves on our defense and our camaraderie. We know if you put anybody in front of us, we are going to have an opportunity to get the win, no matter who it is.
“It might seem like it’s new to other people, but to us, this is the group we have had all year.”
It’s a group that has built success on a camaraderie started on a trip to Costa Rica before the season. It’s a group of players led by players from South Carolina, who love to represent the state to the point that Thornwell yelled “this is my state” on the court in Greenville a handful of times in wins against Marquette and Duke. It’s a group who bought into Martin and all that South Carolina could be — even if this possibility was near impossible and farfetched at best.
It is, as Notice said, built from a pride in defense, a brutally physical, bludgeoning style that does not relent and has worn down the nation’s top 3-point shooting team, preseason No. 1 team and a high-powered offense before having to grind through an opponent that knew what to expect from the Gamecocks. Now, it’s paired with an offense pouring in points and led by Thornwell’s 103 points through four games.
And it’s a group that has shown it won’t back off or throw in the towel when the moment gets tough, proven in coming back from halftime deficits in three games in the tournament.
That comes from lots of losing early in Martin’s tenure, the fifth-year coach almost five years to the day that he was hired. It’s that and adversity, which the Gamecocks found plenty of late this season as the pressure of the NCAA Tournament weighed and a team that was dominant in November and December swooned.
It was then that Martin and his team came up with a saying as they “were scrambling a little bit.” Martin brought up the concept of a tug of war, painting the picture of two groups of people pulling in opposite directions and how a team can fail when one person lets go of the rope.
“I don’t care how hard it is, you can’t let go of the rope or your team’s going to lose,” Martin told his players. “So we started saying, we’re in a difficult moment right now, hold on to that rope, don’t let that rope go. I don’t care how hard it gets, don’t let that rope go. And our guys are fully invested in it. …
“They don’t panic, they stay the course, they hold on to that rope.”
When Florida made a massive push to take the lead at halftime, that’s what the Gamecocks thought back to and drew more heart — if more was ever needed — to grind out a win after 15 minutes of one-possession basketball in the second half.
“We don’t give up,” Thornwell said. “We don’t let go of that rope. We have a saying about don’t let go of the rope. Our mindset was we are not going to let go of that rope. We sustained the run and we know it was going to a 20-minute half.”
The second half was, once again, in South Carolina’s favor. The team that laughed in its locker room when they were picked to finish eighth in the SEC before the season kept its season going longer than any other team in the conference and for as long as only three other teams in the country.
With pieces of net wrapped through their hats, the Gamecocks celebrated on the floor at the self-billed World’s Most Famous Arena — a basketball program without any great modern success having doubled its all-time tournament wins in the span of 10 days.
“Let’s go! Why not us?” Duane Notice shouted standing on the stage at centercourt, his hands helping hold the regional championship trophy over his head. Thornwell had it, too, yelling “secure the bag.”
With Thornwell’s arm no longer draped around him, Dozier smiled and shouted over the hysteria around him.
“That’s what we plan on doing,” Dozier said. “Continuing to make history — one game at a time.”