NEW YORK — The unbelievable has become completely believable for South Carolina basketball.
The Gamecocks did it again, winning another NCAA Tournament game after the program went more than four long decades without a single tournament win. And they did it largely in the same way they did last weekend, stifling another high-powered offense with its intense defense and scoring the basketball at a high rate in what no longer is a real surprise.
South Carolina is going to the first Elite 8 in school history, blasting past Baylor in a 70-50 win Friday night at Madison Square Garden to move within one game of a Final Four berth. The Gamecocks will face the Florida, with a trip to Phoenix and the Final Four bid on the line at 2:20 p.m. Sunday.
“We are not stunned,” guard PJ Dozier said. “We know that when this team came together, we had the opportunity and we knew we could be in the position that we are in. We are not stunned.”
What the Gamecocks are doing is becoming increasingly less stunning to anyone. For the second straight game, they knocked off a team that was ranked No. 1 during the season. They’re in uncharted waters now for the program, diving deeper into the postseason than any that has come before.
“It’s a good feeling when we continue to make history,” senior Duane Notice said. “I think once we got a taste of it, we kind of got addicted and want to continue doing it.”
Sindarius Thornwell continued his blitz through the tournament, scoring 24 points and grabbing six rebounds. Dozier and Chris Silva had 12 points each for the Gamecocks, who also got 11 points from Notice.
But as has been the case of late, it was the South Carolina defense that got the job done. The Gamecocks held Baylor to a season-low 50 points, limiting the Bears to 30.4 percent shooting and 23.1 percent shooting from 3-point range. The ferocious defense forced Baylor into 16 turnovers, while allowing 17 field goals.
Many Gamecocks had the battle scars to prove their efforts afterward, as both Thornwell and Dozier had scratches on their face as evidence of a battle on the floor at MSG.
“It was a dogfight,” Thornwell said. “A lot of people don’t like those games. A lot of people are pretty and don’t want to get pumped around. That’s our game. That’s what we go to.”
South Carolina broke the game open with an 18-0 run that spanned the back half of the first half. It all started with a Dozier floater off the glass to tie the game 15-15. By the time it ended, the Gamecocks were ahead 31-15, Madison Square Garden was roaring and South Carolina was racing toward being one of the final eight teams standing.
“We knew that we had the game in our control and we had to keep it going,” Thornwell said.
Notice put USC ahead 18-15 with a well-executed set out of a timeout. Thornwell crossed over in transition and banked in a tricky finish. Silva hit two free throws and Dozier hit a free throw. Rakym Felder’s floater was true late in the shot clock and so was Thornwell’s. A Silva jumper and Thornwell free throws pushed the run to 18-0.
“I think it was defense,” Dozier said of the run. “At the end of the day, the ball has to go in the basket to get points. The offense takes a big part in it, but we make our offense out of our defense and I think that really helped us.”
South Carolina had to weather a second-half run from Baylor, which quickly went on a 10-0 spurt sparked by a pair of Manu Lecomte 3-pointers to pull within 11.
But Thornwell and Notice didn’t let the Gamecocks wilt, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to squash the push and extend the lead back to 17.
“Your two seniors step up,” coach Frank Martin said. “The other team is making a run and your two seniors step up to the plate and make shots to stop the run.”
The lead grew as large as 22 for the Gamecocks late in the second half, when the game was well in hand and the celebration at Madison Square Garden was already under way for South Carolina fans.
“Feeling pretty good, but the job isn’t done,” senior guard Justin McKie said. “We wanted to get here to play Sunday. That’s what we get an opportunity to do.”
Player of the game
I mean, yeah.
The Gamecocks were sitting well early, until Baylor went on a 7-0 run to take the lead.
But then an 18-0 run happened and it was all South Carolina to close the first half.
What’s next for South Carolina basketball
South Carolina will face the winner of Wisconsin-Florida on Sunday afternoon.
South Carolina basketball box score