ELITE! South Carolina basketball makes first Elite 8 in program history

NEW YORK — The unbelievable has become completely believable for South Carolina basketball.

The Gamecocks did it again, winning another NCAA Tournament game after the program went more than four long decades without a single tournament win. And they did it largely in the same way they did last weekend, stifling another high-powered offense with its intense defense and scoring the basketball at a high rate in what no longer is a real surprise.

South Carolina is going to the first Elite 8 in school history, blasting past Baylor in a 70-50 win Friday night at Madison Square Garden to move within one game of a Final Four berth. The Gamecocks will face the winner of Wisconsin and Florida, with a trip to Phoenix and the Final Four bid on the line at 2:20 p.m. Sunday.

“We are not stunned,” guard PJ Dozier said. “We know that when this team came together, we had the opportunity and we knew we could be in the position that we are in. We are not stunned.”

Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell continued his blitz through the tournament, scoring 24 points and grabbing six rebounds. Dozier and Chris Silva had 12 points each for the Gamecocks, who also got 11 points from Duane Notice.

But as has been the case of late, it was the South Carolina defense that got the job done. The Gamecocks held Baylor to a season-low 50 points, holding the Bears to 30.4 percent shooting and 23.1 percent shooting from 3-point range.

“Stuck to our identity, playing defense and going hard,” guard Justin McKie said. “Trying our best to limit them to one shot.”

South Carolina broke the game open with an 18-0 run that spanned the back half of the first half. It all started with a Dozier floater off the glass to tie the game 15-15. By the time it ended, the Gamecocks were ahead 31-15, Madison Square Garden was roaring and South Carolina was racing toward being one of the final eight teams standing.

“We knew that we had the game in our control and we had to keep it going,” Thornwell said.

Notice put USC ahead 18-15 with a well-executed set out of a timeout. Thornwell crossed over in transition and banked in a tricky finish. Silva hit two free throws and Dozier hit a free throw. Rakym Felder’s floater was true late in the shot clock and so was Thornwell’s. A Silva jumper and Thornwell free throws pushed the run to 18-0.

“I think it was defense,” Dozier said of the run. “At the end of the day, the ball has to go in the basket to get points. The offense takes a big part in it, but we make our offense out of our defense and I think that really helped us.”

South Carolina had to weather a second-half run from Baylor, which quickly went on a 10-0 spurt sparked by a pair of Manu Lecomte 3-pointers to pull within 11.

But Thornwell and Notice didn’t let the Gamecocks wilt, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to squash the push and extend the lead back to 17.

“Your two seniors step up,” coach Frank Martin said. “The other team is making a run and your two seniors step up to the plate and make shots to stop the run.”

The lead grew as large as 22 for the Gamecocks late in the second half, when the game was well in hand and the celebration at Madison Square Garden was already under way for South Carolina fans.

“Feeling pretty good, but the job isn’t done,” McKie said. “We wanted to get here to play Sunday. That’s what we get an opportunity to do.”

Player of the game

Thornwell

I mean, yeah.

Turning point

The Gamecocks were sitting well early, until Baylor went on a 7-0 run to take the lead.

But then an 18-0 run happened and it was all South Carolina to close the first half.

What’s next for South Carolina basketball

South Carolina will face the winner of Wisconsin-Florida on Sunday afternoon.

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SOUTH CAROLINA SHOWCASING IDEAL SLEEPER FORMULA TO EARN SURPRISE ELITE 8 BERTH

Entering the 2017 NCAA tournament, the most attention paid to South Carolina revolved around a program limping into March Madness. Sure, it held a 22-10 record, but a loss to Ole Miss and a pair of shortcomings against Alabama were glaring mishaps.

About 10 days later, the seventh-seeded Gamecocks have thrice used a combination of suffocating defense and a streaky offense as the formula to burst into the Elite Eight—most recently behind a 70-50 victory over third-seeded Baylor.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but that's not the focus. Although Frank Martin's team showed both skills before the tourney, it didn't happen regularly as the campaign closed.

Put simply, only the most diehard fans or extremely fortunate predictors could've projected this occurring. Yet nothing about South Carolina's run is luck, either.

The defense has been championship-worthy, and the offense has surged at perfect moments. While consistency is a problem when the former isn't on display, underdogs can hardly be more dangerous when their defense is excelling.

During the final nine-plus minutes of the Gamecocks' opening-round game against Marquette, they ripped off a 25-8 run while allowing just a 2-of-10 mark from the field. Then, Duke tied a season-worst mark with 18 turnovers in the upset loss, shooting a frustrating 38 percent in the second half.

And finally on Friday, Baylor mustered just 17 field goals compared to 16 turnovers, managing a dreadful 30.4 percent clip.

That tenacious defense is what South Carolina lacked before the NCAA tourney. Prior to February, the Gamecocks surrendered 70-plus points just three times in 21 games. From then on, they allowed 70-plus in seven of 11 outings.

No, it's not a perfect measurement of success, but South Carolina only averaged 73.1 points both in SEC play and on the season. It ranked just seventh in conference play, and the team is still unspectacular in tempo-adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.

But as the defense shines, the offense only needs to be adequate.

With Sindarius Thornwell leading the way, the Gamecocks have met the manageable benchmark in the Big Dance. The SEC Player of the Year is averaging 25.7 points through three games, and the team as a whole is shooting 54.8 percent inside the arc.

South Carolina, during the regular season, exemplified how a streaky offense isn't a sustainable way to win. But in a short-term stretch, it's certainly enough to complement a tenacious unit holding down the other end.

The Gamecocks will need a more formidable offense to assemble a true championship run, but defense is one victory away from carrying them through the East Region.

From rapid rotations to active hands to purely out-hustling opponents for loose balls, they've flat-out been the better team.

Marquette's 12 assists were the program's fourth-lowest output of 2016-17. Duke collected just 11 dimes. Baylor also finished with 11, which was the team's second-worst total this year.

Perhaps the Elite Eight is where South Carolina's surprising run reaches its conclusion. Should that happen, the 2017 tournament was still a historical year for the school, considering it had never before advanced past the Sweet 16.

Or maybe this spectacular story has another chapter. After all, Martin said after the win that "it's the best defensive team I've coached in college basketball," per David Cloninger of The State.

The Gamecocks won't move any further without lockdown defense continuing while Thornwell carries a volatile offense. But after three impressive games on the biggest stage, it's not time to start doubting them and their formula now.

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