NEW YORK — South Carolina basketball just wanted to be invited to the NCAA Tournament two weeks ago.
Fourteen days later almost to the minute, Frank Martin was standing on a ladder at Madison Square Garden. His fingers shook uncontrollably as he cut piece after piece of the net down with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” echoing through The Garden. Finally free from the rim, Martin waved the net frantically through the air before throwing it into his players crowded next to the ladder with pieces of net already wrapped through their Final Four hats.
They are way more than only in the NCAA Tournament now: They are headed to the final stage.
Together, Martin and these Gamecocks are history-makers once again. The Gamecocks are headed all the way to the Final Four for the first time in program history. South Carolina continued its rampage through the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Florida in a 77-70 win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.
“We did something that we hadn’t done in a while by making the tournament,” senior guard Duane Notice said. “We had no pressure to win the next game. Once we started and continuing to win, we knew we had new life and new motivation to keep playing as hard as we can.”
The Gamecocks face Gonzaga at 6:09 p.m. ET Friday for a spot in the national championship in Glendale, Ariz. North Carolina and Oregon awaits the winner in Monday’s national title game at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Duane Notice sealed the trip for the Gamecocks, throwing down a game-clinching dunk with 11 seconds left after PJ Dozier stole the ball and tossed it down court to an open Notice, who slammed it home as the USC-dominant crowd roared as it has so much in the past nine days and four games.
“That was the dagger, if you will,” Notice said. “My teammates always joke around that I have no athleticism because I don’t dunk anymore like I used to. I wanted to prove them wrong in the best way possible.”
Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell was named the regional MVP, scoring eight straight critical points in a 2-minute, 3-second stretch late in the second half in the most back-and-forth moments of the game. He finished with 26 points, increasing his four-game tournament total to 103.
Dozier had 17 points for the Gamecocks, while freshman forward Maik Kostar was the surprise star of the night with 12 points after having only nine through the first three games of the tournament.
It was Kotsar who gave the Gamecocks their first lead of the second half, 49-48 as he followed a missed Notice layup. The freshman again made a monster play when he trailed Thornwell running down the court, took a pass from the senior and calmly hit a short jumper for a 67-63 lead after the teams were locked in a one-possession game for 14:59.
Two seconds earlier, Thornwell stripped the ball Florida’s Kasey Hill to set the Gamecocks on the path toward Phoenix — a journey that seemed farfetched a month ago, two weeks ago and even as each weekend of the NCAA Tournament started.
“We were just excited about being here first and foremost,” Dozier said. “We were just going to take it a game at a time. We weren’t looking too far ahead. We weren’t looking behind us either. One game at a time and that has gotten us to where we are.”
South Carolina trailed by seven at halftime, just as it did in the teams’ first meeting this season in January in Columbia. The Gamecocks reminded each other of that fact in the locker room and felt fine about the second half after Florida went on a 20-9 run to close the first half behind a barrage of 3-pointers.
“Someone definitely told us they had made seven threes,” Notice said. “We knew last time we lost to them, they made nine threes. We wanted to come out and stop them.”
Florida would not hit another shot from behind the arc, missing all 14 second-half attempts as the South Carolina defense wore down another opponent in the second half in the tournament.
The action got wild and Madison Square Garden dialed up the noise a few notches as Florida’s Justin Leon tipped away a pass from Thornwell intended for Notice. Leon dove, tipping the ball ahead and Florida’s Friday night hero Chris Chiozza raced out for a layup. USC’s Chris Silva, who had 13 points, responded with a lefty hook off the glass after grabbing an offensive rebound off a missed Thornwell 3-pointer to tie the game 63-63
Thornwell raced down the floor like crazy after grabbing a rebound, almost banking in a difficult layup. He made both free throws, giving USC a 65-63 lead with 2:21 to play. Then his steal led to Kotsar finally giving South Carolina a four-point lead.
South Carolina had to fight off an incredible effort from Leon, as the senior forward had 18 points for the Gators and consistently came up with big baskets.
But at the end of the night, Martin was walking toward the corner of the court with his arms raised high. There, he hugged his wife and mother before heading to centercourt to accept the East Regional trophy and celebrate with his team after another history-making moment.
“When we got in, we just wanted to win one and make history,” senior guard Justin McKie said. “Now, we’ve won three more and now hopefully we can win another one.”
SOUTH CAROLINA WITH THE EXCLAMATION POINT pic.twitter.com/wwFmvx20C8
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 26, 2017
What’s next for South Carolina basketball
The Final Four in Phoenix on Saturday against Gonzaga.