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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

March Madness: South Carolina coming to Garden with NY roots

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin argues a

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin argues a call during the first half in a second-round game against Duke in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Greenville, S.C. Photo Credit: AP

Judging from the timeline on his phone, South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin pieced together the sequence this way: “The Duke game had not even ended and I was getting a text from Kevin Joyce.”

Martin knew where Joyce was coming from: The text-sender had been a guard for the Gamecocks in 1973, the last time before this year that South Carolina won an NCAA Tournament game. Joyce did not want to wait one more second to celebrate. It was important, too, to recognize where Joyce had come from. He was a New Yorker, like just about all of South Carolina’s top players the last time it was a basketball power.

This odd foursome in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden on Friday night — Baylor, Wisconsin and Florida are the other teams — might not seem to carry much local flavor, but South Carolina has New York roots. Deep roots, stretching nearly 50 years, when coach Frank McGuire turned South Carolina into New York’s team.

“I was an easy recruit,” Joyce, a Long Beach resident, said on the phone Thursday from Vermont, where he helps run a ski lodge. “My high school coach was Jack Curran and Jack played at St. John’s for Frank. The only thing that I worried about was whether Jack was going to go coach at Boston College. If he had, I would have gone to Boston College.”

No worry there. Curran remained for a long time at Archbishop Molloy and Joyce was free to board what people used to call the Frank McGuire Railroad heading south. He was one of many. John Roche was a star in Columbia, South Carolina, before playing for the Nets in the ABA and several NBA teams. Mike Dunleavy, Bobby Cremins, Tom Owens, Tom Riker, George Felton (who eventually coached the Gamecocks) and Brian Winters all were Gamecocks standouts.

“We were all Irish-Catholic kids from New York. We loved it,” Joyce said. “The people were very warm to us. I think they were really hungry for a winner.”

Martin, standing in the hallway at the Garden after practice, said, “I remember when I was a kid, watching those guys play. Here I am, friends with every one of them. The love they all have for their university is powerful.”

The Gamecocks coach, who orchestrated a stunner of an upset over second-seeded Duke on Sunday, had one more thing to say about the context: “Here’s the other part that excites me. It’s bringing the name Frank McGuire back a lot, a name that is powerful throughout basketball and this community.”

It is a different world than the one in which McGuire worked, the one he left behind in retirement 37 years ago. But the fact is, South Carolina is a big name in college hoops and the school’s coaching position still is a big job because of the man from New York and the players he once brought from his hometown.

“He was a great coach and a great personality,” said Joyce, who was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, then played in the ABA and had a career on Wall Street. “He could recruit.”

McGuire, who died in 1994, coached St. John’s, his alma mater, to the Final Four, then moved on to North Carolina, where he lured New York-area players such as Billy Cunningham and Larry Brown and won a national title. After a year of coaching in the NBA, he moved to South Carolina, which became a formidable team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

There have been some choppy years, even decades since then. But college basketball is bigger and broader because McGuire spread the New York gospel. It still is spreading. Baylor’s Ishmail Wainright said Thursday, “Not too many people can say they played a Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden. This is just like a dream come true for me. I’m actually here and I’m sitting where Carmelo [Anthony] possibly sat. It’s just something crazy, something different. The city is amazing.”

The city, at least for Friday night, belongs to South Carolina.

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