South Carolina is enjoying a coming out party in Frank Martin’s fifth year in Columbia. After a thrilling 88-81 defeat of Duke Sunday night in the NCAA round of 32 in Greenville, the once moribund program now moves on to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
“We’re not satisfied winning one game or just this game,” said Gamecocks star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who finished with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists, “We’re in it, why not win it? Why not us? We feel like we can compete with anybody in the country.”
Two things had to happen for the Gamecocks to be able to defeat Duke to advance to the Sweet 16. First, the Gamecocks had to feature that hard-nosed defensive-minded-mentality that Martin’s teams always feature. Second, scorers had to step up help out Thornwell, the team’s leading scorer and the SEC Player of the Year.
South Carolina’s defense came up huge in the second half. They held Duke to 38.9 percent from the floor and their defense and physicality was such that Duke went for a 5:32 stretch late in the second half where the Blue Devils were 0-for-6 with one turnover. To stay within shouting distance, they went to the free throw line 12 times in that stretch.
“It’s the toughest defense we have played against this year,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, “Very physical; actually the most physical game we have played in all year.”
At the outset of the second half, South Carolina found its offense. The Gamecocks were 7-of-35 from the field in the first half and then morphed into a picture of efficiency. They shot 71.4 percent and scored 65 points while going 21-of-23 at the free-throw line. The 65 points scored by the Gamecocks was the most-ever allowed by a Krzyzewski-coached team in a half.
Thornwell needed a few friends to have his back on the offensive end for USC to pull the upset, which they did.
Guard Duane Notice and low-post presence Chris Silva had 17 points each. Freshman guard Rakym Felder finished with 15.
Notice was tough off the dribble and hit a pit of 3s, which stymied the Duke defense in figuring out how to guard him. Silva, a sophomore from Philadelphia, had possibly his best night as a Gamecock with 10 boards to go with his 17 points. He faced Duke’s big men and went over top of them with a pair of slams, which helped the Gamecocks maintain their second half lead.
“We just made shots,” said Thornwell, “We got the ball inside. Chris did a great job posting up and then we just fed him. Chris was the difference in the second half. He showed up big time for us.”
And then there was Felder, Martin’s Brooklyn, N.Y. point guard, who got to the line 10 times and made nine. His 15 points equaled his season high vs. Texas A&M in early January.
“For a freshman point guard, he has been phenomenal,” said Martin, “He’s been a spark off the bench all year. We’ve won games because he has come in there and he is aggressive, like the guys said, he’s fearless of the moment. He likes the big stage.”
It’s taken Martin five years to build USC’s program to where it could compete and get to the NCAA Tournament — and win on college basketball’s highest platform. These Gamecocks are not finished. They are a tight-knit group led by three seniors in Thornwell, Notice, and Justin McKie. Behind these guys, it’s a young roster. This team’s chemistry and mentality is such that it could be dancing from New York to Phoenix and on to the Final Four in two weeks.
“We’re enjoying the moment and just going out and giving it our all every game,” said Thornwell, “It doesn’t matter who we play, we are just going out and competing and giving everybody our best shot.”