GLENDALE, Ariz. — For the past couple weeks, Frank Martin has wonderfully articulated emotions and stories ranging from the strength of his mother to the significance of hugging his wife after clinching a Sweet 16 berth.
But on Saturday afternoon, the most emotional words of South Carolina’s run in NCAA Tournament hung on Martin’s lips. And who could blame him? The South Carolina basketball coach wrestled with the emotions of a season ending, but also with the desire to properly articulate what the past 15 days of a historic season have meant to people in the state of South Carolina.
With his head in his right hand, the South Carolina basketball coach leaned forward, scratching the top of his head and sniffling softly. He rested his head on his right hand balled into a fist, took a breath with the powerful words finally on the tip of his tongue and delivered.
“There’s something powerful when you impact others,” Martin said. “And what these kids have done is pretty special. When you get people to travel across the country by the masses because they believe in what you do, it’s powerful stuff. And they’ve impacted our community in an unbelievable way, which is worth so much more than the score of the game.”
Martin paused, shrugged his shoulders and looked down, stating, “that’s what it’s all about” and with a point to his left, brought it all back to his players. He called them great role models, before it became about his seniors and the somber reality that it was over for the three players that bought into him and the South Carolina program when it had no concept of making a Final Four.
“There’s a lot of young kids that want to be the next Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie and I don’t get to coach them anymore,” Martin said, “but they are part of my life forever.”
Thornwell, McKie and Duane Notice wore a South Carolina uniform for the final time Saturday, walking off the court as Gamecocks for the last time after a 77-73 loss to Gonzaga. But their impact on the program was felt in Martin’s words in the impact on the community.
The three bought into South Carolina for various reasons, but none with any false pretenses about any ease of winning as Gamecocks. Martin made no promises of success, just that he would give them all he had to make them better men and basketball players.
But after reaching the Final Four four years after starting their career with a 14-20 season, it wasn’t unfathomable to them to have reached such a level.
“Not hard to believe at all,” McKie said. “Coach Martin is a guy who makes things happen. He brought in some guys that were winners in high school that wanted to win in college and he told us if we stuck with it and stuck with him, things would turn around and he did.”
Still, there’s turnaround and then there’s reaching the Final Four as a No. 7 seed with no history of success in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what these Gamecocks did, led by seniors who pushed the program into new heights in their final season.
They reached a crazy level, bringing a fitting end to their season-long farewell tour, which started as a joke among the three seniors early in SEC play and grew. With each away game, the Gamecocks checked off another stop on the tour with their final game in each arena. Then as the NCAA Tournament arrived and the Gamecocks played in Greenville, S.C., the senior trio talked about having added dates to their farewell series and wanting to add more locations.
It reached so far that the Gamecocks finished their farewell tour in a football stadium, playing in University of Phoenix Stadium in the Final Four.
“It has been great,” Thornwell said. “Just for us to go out the best way we can go out and that’s make it to the Final Four. Everybody wants to make it to the Final Four and some seniors don’t even make it to the NCAA Tournament. We had a chance to play here and it was great.”
But the tangible things, like the Final Four banner that will hang in the rafters of Colonial Life Arena, only reflect so much about this senior class. The underclassmen in South Carolina’s locker room spoke of how the seniors helped build the USC program with Martin into what it is now. They talked about leadership and a path to mimic to reach success and the desire to be like them moving forward.
It’s those lessons and the impact on the South Carolina fan base that had Martin choked up, and it’s those things that the seniors hope to leave on a program they have helped create. McKie pointed to a legacy of passion, especially a passion for hard work.
“It was tough when we first came in here, me, Sindarius and Duane,” McKie said. “But we learned to love working hard every single day and giving it our all every single day. I hope that the younger guys saw that in us and I hope they will continue to carry that on and pass that down to whoever comes after them.”
Notice cited the way all three grew as men together in their four years at South Carolina, a bond forged together through having no one to lean on early in their careers. They built into each other, building into the program in turn and leaving it in a far better place than they found it.
The fans followed, for which all three seniors were thankful Saturday afternoon. The support they saw grow all along until it reached its peak during the NCAA Tournament isn’t something they’ll soon forget.
But four years now have come and gone, which McKie said is “pretty wild” to think about. They did things the program had never seen before, making a mark beyond what they could have imagined. The scope of understanding their careers will come in time.
The scope of understanding their careers will come in time, the early phases of which McKie expected would come sitting in the team’s hotel late Saturday. There probably will come a time for the seniors to have a chance to reflect together on what they have accomplished and the mark they have left.
When they do, they know what it likely will look like, as three players who gave it their all can look back on a program changed and a job well done.
“We will have some moments that will make us laugh and some moments that will make us cry,” McKie said. “But at the end of the day, we did it together. We did some things around here that hadn’t been done before.”