New York, N.Y. – All throughout the season, Sindarius Thornwell and the South Carolina men's basketball team had a simple saying they repeated over and over again.
Why not us?
For the Gamecocks, there was never any reason to limit the dream. Anything is possible, right?
Well, on Sunday, South Carolina kept the wild NCAA Tournament ride going with a 77-70 come-from-behind victory over Florida in the Elite Eight.
You know what that means. The Gamecocks are on their way to the Final Four in Phoenix for the first time ever.
"Anyone that's in sports dreams of moments like this," head coach Frank Martin said. "It's not something that you start dreaming the year you win 25 games. You dream it every single day. And the thing is, you have to work toward getting better every day. Not get wrapped up on good and bad and losses and wins. I've never changed my mindset. It's been my mindset from day one."
The Gamecocks set a school record with their 26th win of the season, and they've also doubled their all-time NCAA Tournament wins from four to eight after this magical run.
South Carolina trailed by seven at halftime, but eight consecutive points by Thornwell helped the Gamecocks overcome the Gators late in the second half. He was also pivotal on the defensive end. With the Gamecocks leading by four with less than a minute to play, Thornwell poked the ball away from Devin Robinson for a pivotal steal.
"He's a big-time player," teammate Hassani Gravett said of Thornwell. "Big-time players make big-time plays. That's what Sindarius is."
Chris Silva would make a free throw on the other end, and with the Gators absolutely needing a score to stay in the game, P.J. Dozier came up with a huge steal that resulted in a game-clinching dunk by Duane Notice for the final points of the game.
"Lot of things ran through my head," Notice said of when he dunked. "My teammates always questioned my ability to dunk, so when I had that breakaway, I was like, 'Man, I have to put the icing on the cake.' I felt good, and I wanted to do it."
Thornwell began the game with a midrange jumper before Florida took a 4-2 lead. After not scoring at all over the previous two games, Maik Kotsar had back-to-back drives and scores to send the Gamecocks back on top. However, KeVaughn Allen was left open for a 3-pointer, which he drained to give the Gators a slim, 7-6 lead at the first media timeout.
A Thornwell three and two free throws gave South Carolina a four-point advantage, but it did not last long. The Gators charged back, and a three by Justin Leon made it 12-11 Gators.
The two teams traded baskets for a bit until Justin McKie's three made it 18-14. However, that lead didn't last long, either, as Kotsar missed a layup and then travelled after getting the offensive rebound.
Silva picked up his second foul moments later, and headed to the bench with a little less than nine minutes to play in the first half. A layup by Kasey Hill tied the game once again.
Notice and Thornwell momentarily gave the Gamecocks a four-point lead again, but threes by Leon and Devin Robinson put Florida on top, 26-24.
Dozier was able to tie it up, but the Gators began to heat up from behind the arc to give themselves a cushion. An Allen three made it 29-26, and Chris Chiozza banked in a trey at the shot clock buzzer to make it a four-point game. Another three by Leon made it a five-point game, and that long-range barrage gave Florida confidence as it extended the lead out to 38-33 before Dozier's three-point play stopped the bleeding.
Florida would end up with a 40-33 lead at halftime, thanks to the strong offensive finish to the half.
Thornwell's 15 points led South Carolina while Dozier contributed nine. The Gators made 14-of-25 (56 percent) of their field goals, and 7-of-12 3-pointers. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks made 14-of-30 (46.7 percent) field goals. South Carolina had 13 points off 11 Florida turnovers.
South Carolina started the second half on a 10-4 run to stop any momentum Florida had from the first half. Back-to-back baskets, the latter by Kotsar, made it a three-point game, and Dozier's tough layup in the middle of two defenders cut the Gator lead to 44-43, and Madison Square Garden started rocking.
It would take a few minutes, but South Carolina would eventually push its way back on top. Notice missed a layup, but Kotsar was right there to lay it in to give the Gamecocks their first lead (49-48) since the Gators' big run toward the end of the first half.
The lead would get to 51-48, but Florida charged back. A score and three-point play by Leon gave Florida a two-point advantage, and it was also the fourth foul on Silva.
Then, it was time for the senior and MVP Thornwell to assert himself. Six straight points by the Lancaster native gave the Gamecocks a 59-57 lead with 5:27 remaining, forcing the Gators to call a timeout.
A turnover by the Gamecocks allowed Florida to breakaway for an easy layup and two-point lead, but Silva's offensive rebound and putback tied the game at 63 with three minutes to play.
It wouldn't stay tied for long as the Gamecocks willed themselves to the victory. At the under-four media timeout, South Carolina knew exactly what it was going to do.
"Just get stops," Thornwell said. "Get stops and execute on offense. That was it. Before the game we told each other, 'No matter what happens throughout the game, stay together and stay committed and hold on to the rope.'"
After the Gators scored in bunches in the first half and nailed seven threes, they were 0-for-14 from long distance in the second half.
"I think the first half, we guarded well," Thornwell said. "They made a lot of tough threes. We knew they weren't going to keep making those shots. That was the difference. I think their legs probably got tired, and their shots were a little flat."
Thornwell finished with 26 points and seven rebounds for South Carolina, which made 26-of-53 (49.1 percent) field goals. Dozier added 17 points, Kotsar 12, and Silva contributed 13 points and nine rebounds. The Gators made 25-of-60 (41.7 percent) field goals.
The Gamecocks advance to the Final Four in Phoenix, and will take on Gonzaga on Saturday, April 1, at 6:09 p.m. ET.
**Story and photo by Kyle Heck**