Sindarius Thornwell ran toward the stands at Madison Square Garden, his arms stretched out like an actor about to take a bow. Around him, thousands of South Carolina fans adoringly cheered the star guard they love so well. Around the country, everyone else took notice.
This has always been the Gamecocks: They are a hard-nosed defensive powerhouse with charismatic players and an amusingly intense coach in Frank Martin. They pride themselves on playing the right way, Thornwell said, and after they obliterated third-seeded Baylor, 70-50, on Friday night to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history, they joined the Bears for a prayer circle in the middle of the arena.
“We give everything we’ve got every game, and the way we play the game, we play the right way. We’ve been doing it all season, and y’all gave us a stage to do it,” Thornwell said. “We’re just showcasing what we’ve been doing all season.”
What they’ve been doing, of course, is making it very, very hard for other teams to score. Seventh-seeded South Carolina made it look positively easy Friday night behind Thornwell’s 24 points and six rebounds. They closed in on Johnathan Motley, who was held to 18 points, and held Baylor to 30.4 percent shooting.
The Bears were 3-for-13 from three-point range and seemed rattled from the opening possessions, when they kicked off the game 0-for-3 from the floor — flubbed layups against that vaunted South Carolina interior defense.
This was South Carolina’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1973 and the first time it has won.
“It’s the best defensive team I’ve coached in college basketball,” said Martin, whose dramatic sideline flourishes are a Shakespearean play all their own. “Somewhere in late November, when we played Michigan . . . I left that game, I said this team has a chance — has a chance — to be the best defensive team I’ve coached.”
Baylor shot 8-for-32 from the floor in the first half and went into the break trailing 37-22. At one point, the Bears didn’t sink a single basket for 7 minutes, 44 seconds. That Gamecocks run — 18-0 — turned a two-point South Carolina deficit into a 31-15 lead with 2:50 left in the half.
Baylor was only 3-for-23 for six points on contested shots in the first half.
“We knew they were big,” Thornwell said. “We knew they were long. We tried our best to attack them . . . I felt like we were in their head the whole game, but they’re a great team and we knew they were going to go on a run.”
South Carolina led by 21 with 14:26 left in the game before Baylor scored the next 10 points, helped by back-to-back treys by Manu Lecomte.
Thornwell’s corner three-pointer snapped the run with 10:16 to go. Duane Notice kicked in a three of his own about a minute later to put the Gamecocks back up by 17. They took their largest lead, 22 points, with 4:49 left.
South Carolina held opponents to an average of 65.2 points this season, which is impressive until you realize that Baylor managed to hold opposing teams to 63.5. That said, the Gamecocks are fourth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com, which deals in advanced college basketball stats. Baylor is 13th.
“It’s a great win for the program,” Notice said. “It’s a good feeling when we continue to make history. I think once we got a taste of it, we kind of got addicted.”