(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in South Carolina Athletics’ countdown. Starting Tuesday April 14, we will be revealing portions of the list nightly on 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Gamecocks history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk Radio Network.
#5: 2017 Final Four Run
The 2017 Final Four run is the deepest run ever by a South Carolina Men’s Basketball team. Behind stellar performances by future pros P.J. Dozier, Sindarius Thornwell, and Chris Silva, the seventh-seeded Gamecocks reached new heights, cementing their place as one of the greatest teams in school history.
The 2016-2017 Gamecocks, under head coach Frank Martin, featured a good blend of experience and young talent in the starting lineup. Sophomores Dozier, and Silva were positioned for a big jump in their second year, while seniors like Thornwell and Notice looked to end their collegiate careers with a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“First of all, you had an older team, a group of guys that had been together four years,” said Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk Radio Network. “They had weathered the storm under Frank Martin, and they had galvanized under him.”
In his fifth year as head coach, Martin had begun to establish a winning culture in Columbia. The team was one year removed from an 11-win campaign in the SEC in a season that ended with a second round exit at the NIT. But with key returnees and plenty of talent, the foundation was in place to return to the tourney for the first time since 2004.
The Gamecocks won each of their first eight games in the 2016-17 season behind some great defense, holding their opponents to fewer than 55 points in six of those contests.
“That was the strength of that team,” said Kornblut. “It was a great defensive team.”
Eighteen games in, South Carolina sat at 15-3 (5-0 in the SEC), which included key wins over 25th-ranked Michigan State, number 18 Syracuse, and number 19 Florida. A loss to Kentucky following the win over the Gators was USC’s first conference loss of the season. But they responded with four straight wins bringing their record to 19-4 (9-1). But a difficult stretch ensued.
The Gamecocks hit a bump in the road late in the season, dropping five of their last eight games, finishing 22-9 (12-6) ahead of the SEC Tournament. There was a good amount of confidence heading into the conference tournament as the Gamecocks drew a number four seed and a bye until the quarterfinals. But fifth-seeded Alabama defeated USC, 64-53, a disappointing blow to the SEC contenders.
“We didn’t see any signs that this team was going to make some sort of huge run in the NCAA Tournament,” Kornblut said.
Despite the early exit, the Gamecocks earned a seventh seed in the NCAA Tournament, and had a short trip to the Upstate for the opening rounds held in Greenville.
South Carolina took on 10th-seeded Marquette in the first round of the tournament in front of thousands of Gamecocks fans at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The Golden Eagles were no match for Thornwell and Dozier, who combined for 50 points, as the Gamecocks won convincingly, 93-73. It was their first tournament win in a game to advance since the early ‘70s.
“It was two nights later when the nation should’ve taken notice of South Carolina,” said Kornblut.
That next matchup was with second-seeded Duke and the Blue Devils superstar, Jayson Tatum. It was back and forth for much of the first half, but South Carolina struggled to convert its field goals, shooting just 20 per cent from the floor in the opening 20 minutes. The Blue Devils claimed a 30-23 lead halftime lead.
The Gamecocks’ offense exploded in the second half, putting up 68 points en route to an 88-81 victory. Thornwell finished with 24, Silva added a career-high 17, and Notice recorded three steals as South Carolina forced 18 Duke turnovers, tying the Blue Devils’ season-high.
“All of a sudden, here they are going to the Sweet Sixteen and we’re all like ‘this is crazy,’” said Kornblut.
USC punched its ticket to the Sweet Sixteen, and they were headed to New York for the East Regional Semifinals.
“You couldn’t draw up a better scenario than to play your first two games in your home state and then go up to the mecca at Madison Square Garden,” said Kornblut.
South Carolina battled third-seeded Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen, and it was the Sindarius Thornwell show once again. The senior finished with another 24-point performance, leading the Gamecocks for the third straight game. USC didn’t trail the Bears for the final 28 minutes of play. The Elite Eight was on the horizon.
A familiar foe awaited the Gamecocks in fourth-seeded Florida. The two teams split their games in the regular season and now a spot in the Final Four was on the line.
“These teams had played each other during the season, knew each other well,” siad Kornblut. “They weren’t going to surprise one another.”
The Gators and Gamecocks traded buckets for the majority of the first half, changing leads several times throughout. But Florida went on a run which included four straight three-pointers, re-taking a lead with three minutes left in the half. They secured a 40-33 lead at the break.
Freshman Maik Kotsar and Silva contributed key buckets at the start of the second half and within five minutes they narrowed the Florida advantage to three points. Near the midway point of the half the Gamecocks regained the lead, though it was short lived.
At the final media timeout, the two teams were knotted at 63.
South Carolina added to their momentum, capping off a 6-0 run with a Kotsar jumper with 1:55 remaining making it 67-63 Carolina.
“It was just like the dagger,” said Kornblut. “When he hit that shot you knew they were golden, that it was going to happen.”
The defense came through when it mattered most. Two steals in the final two minutes stunted any momentum Florida had garnered, and the Gamecocks hung on to win it, 77-70, reaching 26 wins for the first time in program history. Along with it came a trip to the Final Four.
“It was a surreal scene afterwards to see the guys cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden,” said Kornblut. “They had earned each one of those four wins.”
The Gamecocks battled hard, but fell to top-seeded Gonzaga the following week in the semifinals in Phoenix, ending the incredible, record-breaking run.
In 112 seasons of Gamecocks basketball, the 2017 team won more games and went further in the tournament than the 111 that preceded it.
South Carolina Top Ten List: