It was on Saturday that Sindarius Thornwell said he doesn’t like having the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a game.
He doesn’t like the idea of being responsible for a winning shot, or the crushing pressure that goes with it.
But as time expired in Sunday’s game against Florida, it was South Carolina’s Thornwell who snagged the defensive rebound, much to the delight of the Madison Square Garden crowd.
Fortunately for him, he didn’t need to score. He’d already done plenty of that. He just had to toss it into the air in giddy abandon as his teammates rushed around him.
Duane Notice hugged him and told him he loved him. The heavy South Carolina contingent continued to erupt — somehow finding a higher decibel than the ear-cracking cheers that permeated every crevice of the World’s Loudest Arena for almost three hours.
It’s the type of tale only March can tell. The seventh-seeded Gamecocks, who lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament and who came into this whole thing not having won an NCAA Tournament game in 44 years, are going to the Final Four for the first time after beating the fourth-seeded Gators, 77-70.
Thornwell, the East Regional MVP, had 26 points, seven rebounds and two steals. He had 10 points in a pivotal 12-8 run, including two free throws to break a tie at 63 with 2:23 remaining. The Gators threatened until the finishing blow — Notice’s breakaway dunk with 11 seconds left.
South Carolina, which has vanquished second-seeded Duke and manhandled third-seeded Baylor, now will play top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona.
“Anyone that’s in sports dreams of moments like this,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “It’s not something that you start dreaming the year you win 25 games. You dream it every single day.”
As has been their way, the Gamecocks were down at halftime, by seven points, a product of Florida’s 7-for-12 shooting from three-point range. They struggled to get a handle on Justin Leon, who scored 13 of his 18 points in the half.
Afterward, when asked how they turned it around, Thornwell talked about a rope.
“Stay committed and hold on to the rope,” he said, a piece of the game net tied around his cap. “We don’t give up. We won’t let go of that rope.”
Martin explained: “When we were scrambling a bit in late January, early February, I said to the guys, have you ever been in a tug-of-war? . . . If one person on one side lets go of the rope, it’s bad. I don’t care how hard it is. You can’t let go of the rope or your team is going to lose.”
Five minutes into the second half, the Gamecocks were in the bonus. They shot 23-for-31 from the free-throw line and took away Florida’s long game; the Gators went 0-for-14 from three-point range in the second half.
Thornwell said the Gators probably were tired. Florida coach Mike White credited the Gamecocks’ intense pressure defense.
Florida shot 31.4 percent in the second half and was outscored 42-28 in the paint overall. South Carolina forced 16 turnovers for 20 points and had four players score in double digits. PJ Dozier had 17 points, Chris Silva added 13 points and nine rebounds and Maik Kotsar finished with 12 points.
Thornwell said he knew the Gamecocks were going to the Final Four after Notice’s dunk. Yes, it provided an insurmountable lead, but Notice’s teammates like to tease him about his perceived lack of athleticism and because he doesn’t dunk as much as he used to.
“I wanted to make sure,” Notice said about the dunk.
It was the first time his two younger sisters were able to watch him play college basketball. His mother and father also were there.
It’s no surprise that Notice was so emotional when Thornwell threw that ball up in the air, like a graduation cap. When they joined the team, no one wanted to come to South Carolina to play basketball.
So he hugged Thornwell and said, “I love you. I love you, brother.’’
Said Notice, “That’s my man in the trenches. We lost a bunch of games [14-20 in their freshman season]. And after we hugged each other, we embraced, it was like, ‘We did it!’ We still have work to do. We’re hungry for more.”