GREENVILLE, S.C. — Call it improbable, call it insane or call it magical.
Whatever you call it, it is historical.
For the first time in South Carolina basketball history, the Gamecocks won two games in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks are going back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 44 years, knocking off Duke in an 88-81 win sparked by stirring performance on both ends of the court.
“It was unmatched,” senior guard Duane Notice said. “I told you guys last game it felt good to win one game. So for us to play in the Sweet 16, it means so much more. The fact we beat a high-powered school like Duke, it’s something we can put on our resumes and off our bucket lists.”
For the second time in as many games, the Gamecocks had a season-saving and season-defining second half – but this one was even better, almost something of legend and leading to one of the biggest wins in school history. Now, the Gamecocks are headed to Madison Square Garden to face No. 3 seed Baylor at 7:29 p.m. Friday.
“Unbelievably proud of my guys,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “For us to be able to play against a team like Duke and play so well on the big stage says a lot about the character of our team.”
Sunday night in Greenville was a scene of beautiful bedlam for a South Carolina program long waiting for the type of basketball success now built on five years of Martin and the buy-in of the whole team, but especially the senior class of Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and Justin McKie.
As the buzzer sounded at 11:15, all three were on the floor together to savor the moment as Thornwell dribbled the ball into the corner in front of South Carolina fan section and threw the ball in the air as he was mobbed by the entire bench.
“It felt wonderful,” Thornwell said. “The best feeling. Being counted out, nobody thought we could win this game. The best feeling is going in as underdogs and coming out on top.”
Thornwell once again bellowed out “this is my state” after a big shot and led the Gamecocks with 24 points, as his tenacity was evident throughout in knocking off the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils.
But the story was as much about Chris Silva. The sophomore forward had 17 points, playing the biggest role in the second-half offense, which injected intense life into the South Carolina — and North Carolina — sections of the arena.
“I have never played in front of a crowd like that before,” sophomore guard PJ Dozier said. “We just thank them so much that they came to Greenville to support – even the fans that weren’t wearing South Carolina colors. We thank them as well.”
Notice also added 17 points, while freshman Rakym Felder fearlessly poured in 15 points when he wasn’t waving his arms to get the arena louder and louder.
The Gamecocks were blistering hot from the field after halftime, seemingly unable to miss for a ridiculous stretch. USC made 20 of 28 field-goal attempts in the second half after a frigid first-half shooting performance.
Still, the Gamecocks didn’t worry as they trailed by only seven at halftime. Martin preached “just make shots” and the players kept saying the phrase to each other.
“We had to continue to guard the way we had been guarding,” Dozier said. “His main message was to make shots.”
As was the case against Marquette, the South Carolina defense was stifling throughout, forcing Duke turnovers at an incredible pace and turning them into points. But not until the Gamecocks stormed out of the locker room on a 7-0 run led by Silva did the tide truly change and what seemed possibly seemed assured. Silva slammed home with a pair of thunderous dunks, the first off a steal from Notice and the second off a drawn-up alley-oop from Thornwell.
It stayed a one-possession game for a stretch until Rakym Felder stared down the hoop from the logo at centercourt and hit a long 3-pointer for a 52-48 lead. Silva converted a three-point play before Notice scored five straight, including a major 3-pointer for a seven-point lead.
Dozier had 11 points for South Carolina, with a pair of back-to-back key buckets, the latter seeming to send the message it was South Carolina’s night as his fallaway, shot-clock beating jumper rattled around and through for a nine-point lead with 6:23 to play.
“We were confident coming into the game,” Dozier said. “We never had any doubt in our team. We have the utmost faith in our team and our coaching staff that we can go out and beat anybody.”
South Carolina pushed the lead to 10 on consecutive Notice layups and hit free throw after free throw down the stretch, leaving behind memories of mediocre free-throw shooting being the difference in close late-season losses.
Fittingly, McKie — a Gamecock legacy — threw down a pair wide-open dunks in the final 1:24 to seal the monster victory as the Gamecocks scored the most points in a half against a Mike Krzyzewski-coached Duke team.
Now, they will have a chance to submit a new game as the biggest win in school history, as rolling through the opening weekend has the Gamecocks thinking of bigger and bolder statements to come.
“We’re not on the map until we win it,” Thornwell said. “We are just having fun. We are not worried about any of that. We are just having fun and embracing everything.”
Player of the game
The sophomore forward had early foul trouble, but then a dominant second half as he keyed the most important run to take the lead.
You wanna get nuts?
ALRIGHT SOUTH CAROLINA LETS GET NUTS pic.twitter.com/F9xvDFAKOy
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 20, 2017
What’s next for South Carolina basketball
The Gamecocks will face Baylor at Madison Square Garden on Friday.