New York, N.Y. – South Carolina is in its first Sweet 16 in well over 40 years, and that monumental game will come in none other than one of the most famous arenas in the world in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
However, the Gamecocks will not come into the city with a dear-in-the-headlight kind of look. Friday's game against Baylor will be the third game the Gamecocks have played in New York this season alone.
The journey started in November at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, where South Carolina picked up a victory over Syracuse. Then, in December, the Gamecocks visited Madison Square Garden for a contest against Seton Hall. The Pirates were able to come away with a slim victory, but the players and coaches know what to expect.
"Definitely think it's good for us that we have played in this arena before," PJ Dozier said. "I think that works in our favor. But first game, second game, third game, I feel like you're always going to be kind of nervous playing here, just due to the history of basketball in this arena."
Of course, there's a difference between a regular season game at MSG and a Sweet 16 matchup. All eyes will be on the Gamecocks and Bears with an Elite Eight berth on the line.
"We have tried real hard for the last 72 hours to spend a lot of time with our guys," head coach Frank Martin said. "I said this to them before we stepped foot into this tournament, 'Guys, the only reason we got put on the board is because you guys listened to me.' I don't say this in an arrogant way. I'm the only person in this room that's ever been in this tournament. Don't stop listening to me now. And they didn't. That's why we had success last weekend, and I trust those guys, so that's what I'm banking (on) this week."
It will be another homecoming for freshman guard Rakym Felder. A Brooklyn native, Felder grew up dreaming of this kind of moment in Madison Square Garden. He played nine minutes in the first game at the arena against Seton Hall, but has steadily grown into a big contributor for the Gamecocks.
Felder hit a couple of huge shots in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament to help his team win. It's rare to find a freshman that is willing to take those kind of huge shots, but Felder has rarely shown nerves this season.
On Friday, he'll get a chance to possibly create a moment that he'll remember for the rest of his life.
"Every kid dreams of playing in Madison Square Garden," Felder said. "But I'm here playing on a big stage. I never thought I would be in the Sweet 16, so this is kind of crazy."
This weekend will also be a homecoming of sorts for Martin. His wife, Anya, is from the area and most of her family still lives in New York. They'll all be at Friday's game, and Martin will also have some family at the game. He heavily recruits the New York area, and has regularly taken his team to play in The Big Apple.
As it turns out, that experience could be the difference between an Elite Eight berth and a season-ending loss.
Friday's game against Baylor is scheduled for 7:29 p.m. and can be seen nationally on TBS.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**