Storyline: Loser of five of its seven previous games, South Carolina made an improbable, incredible run to The Final Four.
The college basketball season officially came to an end Monday night. North Carolina defeated Gonzaga, 71-65, to capture its sixth national championship.
While the Tar Heels had an impressive NCAA tournament run, that great accomplishment may not overshadow the success achieved by UNC’s neighbor to the south, the Gamecocks of South Carolina. USC’s run will go down as an all-time NCAA men’s basketball achievement.
History was not on its side: The Gamecocks hadn’t even won a NCAA tournament game in over 40 years. And, before this year, the Gamecocks had never appeared in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, or Final Four.
Uncle ‘Mo was not in USC’s favor: The Gamecocks came into the Big Dance as flat as an open Coke bottle. They had lost five of seven coming into the tournament and had been shown the door by Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament. It looked like 2017 would be a repeat of last season. The Gamecocks faltered down the stretch in 2016 and missed the NCAA tournament altogether.
USC had to beat Duke: The Blue Devils were a popular choice to bring home the bacon. Twelve percent of those who filled out brackets for ESPN’s Tournament Challenge picked Duke to be the 2017 national champion. Then, on March 19, USC pulled the unthinkable: the Gamecocks upset Duke, 88-81. And that win came on the 25th anniversary of “The Laettner Shot.” Turnabout is fair play.
Great offense only wasn’t going to get it done: The Gamecocks assaulted opposing guards with stifling pressure. The team forced an average of 17 turnovers per game. There weren’t any good shot selections against this team: opponents found the bottom of the net on average 39.8% of the time.
A player come out of the national shadows and into the national limelight: I wonder just how many fans knew the name Sindarius Thornwell before USC started its tournament run? This Gamecocks’ senior was a straight-up BOSS. Anytime USC needed a big bucket, it went to Thornwell. Anytime South Carolina needed a huge stop, there was Thornwell. Thornwell was simply “The Man.” His winning character both (on- and off-the-court) will serve him well in the NBA.
It wasn’t a matter of dominate teams from the start: Tournament fans will probably remember seeing the stat about just how many total minutes Gonzaga played with the lead this season. The Bulldogs rarely trailed in any game during the entire year. Wow! But that wasn’t USC’s profile. The Gamecocks trailed Duke by 10 points before taking the lead. In the Elite Eight, Florida led by seven points at intermission before South Carolina cranked up the defense en route to a 77-70 victory and a spot in the Final Four. Then the Gamecocks were down 14 to Gonzaga before going on a 16-0 run to take a two-point lead. Even though it wasn’t enough to win, South Carolina competed, scratched, and clawed when it looked like all hope was lost.
No question about it: South Carolina had a remarkable run. But trust me, this won’t be the only time you’ll hear about the Gamecocks. This isn’t a one-and-done story. Behind the excellent leadership of Coach Frank Martin, South Carolina will sustain an ability to compete at the national level.
To that I say: Forever to Thee! Go Gamecocks!