GREENVILLE, S.C. — Sindarius Thornwell, as he has so many times this season, calmly stepped into a critical shot for South Carolina basketball on Friday night.
But it wasn’t just any shot — as was the case with so many for Thornwell on the night. He coolly buried a 3-pointer, the result eliciting a heartfelt, special reaction from the senior star because it meant so much more.
“This is my state,” Thornwell bellowed repeatedly toward the South Carolina section, pounding his chest and the words “Carolina” with pride as he ran back down the court as the decidedly pro-South Carolina crowd went bonkers.
Forty-four years to the day — more than four long decades waiting for this Friday night in Greenville, S.C. The South Carolina Gamecocks won in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1973, ending a befuddling streak and making it a left-behind footnote with a 93-73 win against Marquette at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
“It means the world,” said PJ Dozier, who had 21 points. “This is for those guys that played at University of South Carolina before us and that paved the way. Frank came here five years ago with the mission to get here. Kudos to them. This is why we play.”
It was something magical for South Carolina, which played an inspired second half on both ends of the court as the emotions came to life on the court and in the stands on a monumental Friday night.
Thornwell stood at midcourt, screaming, jumping and waving his arms as Dozier rammed home a two-handed dunk for a six-point lead. The Gamecocks ran back to the bench all smiling with 4:40 to play with a 13-point lead.
Then Thornwell provided the lasting stretch from a historic game.
The senior guard lofted a perfect midrange jumper, literally bouncing his way back down the court. He came flying across the court to swat away a Marquette shot, gathering the ball and racing down the court, hovering in the air for an and-one play that has been a staple of his phenomenal senior season.
He sat on the ground, let out a yell — his teammates yelling along with him — and the arena felt the greatness of the play and the power of the moment all at once: South Carolina was going to win an NCAA Tournament game.
“Four years ago, this was always the goal,” said Thornwell, who had a game-high 29 points. “We didn’t know it was going to happen. We didn’t know it was going to come true. We just stayed grinding and stayed working and tried to put ourselves in a situation where we could have this opportunity.”
In many ways, that’s exactly what happened Friday night against the Golden Eagles. South Carolina fell behind early, but stayed true to itself and rallied so it could play at 8:45 p.m. Sunday against Duke with a Sweet 16 trip on the line.
The Gamecocks fell behind by 10 points early, but fought back over and over to keep the game close behind the tenacious defense that drove the team all season. Behind the effort — led by senior guard Duane Notice — was a reality of what letting the game slip away would mean.
“It was thinking about not being able to play again,” senior guard Justin McKie said. “Everybody wanted to play again on Sunday. Guys talked to each other in the huddle and kept pushing each other. The defense turned up.”
South Carolina limited the nation’s best 3-point offense to just a 25 percent clip in the second half, forcing 12 turnovers with none bigger than Notice forcing an over-and-back soon after halftime. Thornwell came right back to the other end and knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game as part of a 13-0 run to change the game.
The Gamecocks unloaded on another long run, this one 16-0 as Marquette went without a field goal for 6:42 down the final stretch. The Gamecocks made play after play, Thornwell scored and scored and the crowd’s roar grew with every basket until the Gamecocks were leaping and celebrating the game’s final seconds on the bench.
Thornwell said he couldn’t remember the last time he had as much fun on the court as he did in the second half and understandably so. The Gamecocks had been seemingly stuck in a rut down the stretch in the regular season. But coach Frank Martin had a feeling all the weight of that rough patch was lifted when the Gamecocks heard their name called as one of the teams in the tournament.
“Once our name went up on the board and I saw our guys’ demeanor in practice, the looseness, the confidence, the aggressiveness, I knew we were going to play well,” said Martin, who was a 5-year-old kindergartener in Miami the last time South Carolina won an NCAA Tournament game.
He mentioned that fact as he walked back to the team bus, which was headed not back to Columbia but around the corner to the team hotel where the Gamecocks started preparing for Duke and another game.
It’s a tall task ahead of them, but also the opportunity to reach another feat that this program hasn’t seen in a long time. Forty-four years, to be exact.
“It we perform like the way we played tonight, we can go far,” Thornwell said. “As long as we play defense and keep guarding. That’s the key. Keep guarding and making shots. If we continue to do those things, I feel like we can go far.”