By Everett Merrill, The Sports Xchange
NEW YORK — South Carolina coach Frank Martin listens to only one type of music — Frank Sinatra’s.
So, it was fitting that Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was blaring at Madison Square Garden while Martin was cutting down the nets after South Carolina’s 77-70 win over Florida in the East Regional final on Sunday.
The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) are headed to the Final Four for the first time in school history. They will meet Gonzaga on Saturday in a national semifinal.
“I usually listen to ‘My Way’ the day of the game,” Martin said. “And then to be up on that ladder cutting that net and (fulfilling) a lifelong dream, and hear ‘New York, New York’ at a place that’s special to me, special to my family, it’s pretty powerful.”
It’s the third time in the past four years that a seventh seed is headed to the Final Four.
Sindarius Thornwell, the Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, led South Carolina with 26 points, going 8 of 13 from the floor and 9 of 10 from the line. He scored three points with an assist and a steal in the last 2:23 of the game.
“I just made plays, I was just in a situation where I just made plays,” Thornwell said. “I feel like our team is the most underrated team in the country. Outside of me. But our team’s the most underrated team as a whole.
“I just felt like plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and was in a situation where I was able to make the plays.
“We’re not going to settle for this and we still feel like we got one more game. Why not? Why not us, why not go win it all. And that’s our mindset. We feel like we can compete with anybody right now in the country.”
PJ Dozier had 17 points, Chris Silva scored 13 points and Maik Kotsar added 12 points for the Gamecocks, who trailed by seven points at the break.
Justin Leon paced fourth-seeded Florida (27-9) with 18 points and KeVaughn Allen had 13 points.
The Gators relied on the 3-pointer in the first half, but failed to make any of their 14 from long range in the second half. Florida missed all 17 of its 3-pointers the first time the two teams played each other, a 57-53 Gamecocks win on Jan. 18.
“We could have gone 0-14 and still won the game,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Obviously, you want to make shots, it’s a big part of basketball.
“I don’t know why… I know they’re (South Carolina) a terrific defense. We took some contested ones. We had a few open ones. Just they just didn’t fall for us.”
South Carolina ranks eighth in 3-point field goal percentage defense, just a shade under 30 percent.
After three straight free throws from South Carolina made it 70-65, a conventional three-point play by Allen cut the lead to 70-68 with 53 seconds left, but that would be the closest Florida would get as the Gamecocks scored the final three points of the game on free throw from Thornwell and dunk by Duane Notice.
The score was tied six times in the span of just under six minutes before Thornwell’s two free throws with 2:24 left put the Gamecocks up 65-63 for good and a mid-range jumper from Kotsar pushed the lead to 67-63 with 1:55 remaining.
A tip-in from Kotsar provided the Gamecocks with their first lead of the second half at 49-48 with 11:28 to play. Florida went 4:32 without a basket.
South Carolina forced 11 turnovers, receiving 13 points from the miscues, but had trouble defending the perimeter. The Gators were 7-of-12 from beyond the arc and led at the break, 40-33
There were nine lead changes and the score was tied four times before the Gators got some separation with a 9-2 run to pull ahead 38-30.
Four straight 3-pointers gave Florida a 32-28 lead with 3:01 left in the half.
Thornwell scored 15 points in the half, going 6-of-8 from the floor’.
Martin has transformed the South Carolina program in a conference more noted for high-caliber football.
“I’ve never changed my mindset,” he said. “It’s been my mindset from day one. Our job was to elevate our program to where we can compete for a SEC championship. That was it. And that’s what we have been striving to do.
“And I know that if we can elevate our program to where we can compete for a SEC championship, because I know our league, we have a chance to win games in this tournament. And that’s what’s happened. Our kids believe in each other, they work their tails off, and we keep our focus where it matters.”
NOTES: Southeastern Conference schools met in a regional final for the first time since Kentucky faced LSU in 1986. … Florida and South Carolina split their two regular-season games. The Gators won 81-66 in Gainesville and the Gamecocks took a 57-53 decision in Columbia. … Florida is the last Division I team to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament titles (2006, 2007). … The Gators were making their ninth Elite Eight appearance, all of which have come since 1994. … This was the first neutral-site contest between South Carolina and Florida since the 2006 SEC tournament championship game in Nashville