Glendale, Ariz. – South Carolina had yet another courageous second-half run on Saturday against Gonzaga that saw the Gamecocks quickly erase a 14-point deficit to take the lead.
It looked like the magic was still strong for the Gamecocks, but the Bulldogs were able to recover and the unforgettable season for South Carolina came to an end after a 77-73 win by the Bulldogs.
The Gamecocks were down by nine at halftime before the deficit grew to 14 points. The Bulldogs were close to blowing the game open, but in typical Gamecock fashion, South Carolina refused to go away.
"So proud of these guys," head coach Frank Martin said. "Like I've been saying for the last three weeks, the harder it gets, the tougher they stand. Every once in a while you get put down on the mat and you better have courage to get off your back, and these guys do it every single time."
South Carolina strung together four consecutive wins to make it to the first Final Four in school history, and while there was certainly disappointment that it didn't end with a trophy being hoisted in the air, there was also a sense of pride among the team for what was accomplished this season.
"He just told us to keep our heads up," senior Justin McKie said of what Martin said to the team after the game. "Told us he was proud of us. Told the guys that were coming back to build off of what was done this year. Told (the) three seniors that were leaving to enjoy what was accomplished for four years."
Both teams started strong offensively, and it would be a seesaw affair. Duane Notice's three gave South Carolina it's first lead at 7-6, but Gonzaga would quickly answer and the Bulldogs held a one-point lead at the first media timeout.
P.J. Dozier's trey made it 10-8 South Carolina, but the Bulldogs tied it up and a three by Silas Melson put Gonzaga up, 13-10. A slam by Chris Silva stopped the mini-run, but Gonzaga continued to make baskets. Zach Collins' layup made it 17-12, and another three by Melson gave the Bulldogs a six-point lead.
Extremely tough layups by freshmen Rakym Felder and Hassani Gravett put the Gamecocks right back in the game, however.
Przemek Karnowski and Collins continued to hound South Carolina inside as the seven-footers used their height advantage to score in the paint. Gonzaga would take a five-point lead, but McKie brought the Gamecocks back with a 3-pointer. Sindarius Thornwell's first points of the game came from the free throw line, and they tied the game at 26.
A three by Jordan Mathews helped the Bulldogs take another five-point lead, but the Gamecocks came back to tie the game again thanks to Silva. He had two emphatic blocks on Karnowski in the span of a couple of minutes, and also played a role in two offensive rebounds. His tough layup and another trey by McKie tied the game again, this time at 31.
Mathews' strong play to close the first half gave the Bulldogs some breathing room entering the locker room. His three broke the tie again, and just after the under-four media timeout, the senior drilled another one to make it 45-36 Gonzaga. It was the largest lead to that point, and it forced South Carolina to call timeout with 44 seconds remaining in the opening half.
That would remain the score at halftime as Gonzaga made 19-of-33 (57.6 percent) field goals in the first half to stake itself out to the nine-point lead. Five different Gamecocks scored at least five points to pace a balanced South Carolina attack. The Gamecocks made 13-of-35 (37.1 percent) field goals in the opening half.
The combo of Karnowski and Collins combined for 14 points and 10 rebounds in the first 20 minutes, and that was even with Karnowski missing a chunk of the half after he was injured on the second block by Silva. Gonzaga leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss heated up to finish with 12 points while the three 3-pointers by Mathews were big for the Bulldogs as well.
Thornwell would do all he could to keep the Gamecocks in the game, but several of his shots kept falling short. After the game, he said he was a little fatigued in the first half, but wasn't going to use that as an excuse for the missed shots.
Gonzaga would take an 11-point lead on a three by Williams-Goss. Threes by Mathews and Williams-Goss offset a Duane Notice trey, and a Williams-Goss traditional three-point play made it 65-51 Gonzaga with a little less than 11 minutes to play.
The Gamecocks could've folded right there. After all, they were playing the No. 1 seed in the Final Four, and it appeared the Bulldogs couldn't miss anything.
That's not what the Gamecocks do, though.
A Silva jumper and free throw and jumper by Dozier trimmed the lead to nine, and then Thornwell nailed his first three of the game to cut the deficit to six points. Another Dozier jumper, two more Silva free throws and a Dozier shot again tied the game at 65.
Gonzaga was stunned, and called timeout with 7:39 to play.
"That run South Carolina made on us, that just shows the heart of a lion that they have, that Frank instills in them," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the game. "It took everything we had to hold them off and come back."
"We don't give up around here," added McKie.
Felder's two free throws made it a 16-0 run and gave the Gamecocks a 67-65 lead, their first lead since it was 10-8. However, the Bulldogs went to their big men, Karnowski and Collins, to regain the momentum.
Collins knocked down a three, and Karnowski nailed back-to-back inside shots to give the Bulldogs a five-point lead. Gonzaga would keep the lead, but the Gamecocks kept chipping away at it over the final few minutes.
Eventually, after a missed shot by Williams-Goss, South Carolina had one final chance with 12.7 seconds left and trailing by three points. Thornwell was fouled with 2.2 seconds left before he got a shot off, and made the first free throw before intentionally missing the second one. Gonzaga grabbed the rebound, though, and on the other end of the court, Killian Tillie dropped down two free throws to ice the win for the Bulldogs that sent them to the National Championship.
Dozier led South Carolina with 17 points and nine rebounds. Two of the seniors, Thornwell (15 points) and Notice (10 points), finished in double figures as well. Silva put together a tremendous game and finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.
Williams-Goss led the Bulldogs with 23 points while Karnowski and Collins combined for 27 points and 18 rebounds. South Carolina made 25-of-66 (37.9 percent) field goals while Gonzaga made 29-of-60 (48.3 percent).
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**