JOE BIDDLE: Gamecocks crow last

South Carolina forward Maik Kotsar (21) is congratulated by forward Chris Silva (30) after scoring against Florida during the second half of the East Regional championship game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 26, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

How about that 7-seed South Carolina basketball team?

They finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference regular season. They didn’t win the SEC Tournament.

They have been the ultimate underdog in the NCAA Tournament.

They are Cinderella in bib overalls and work boots.

Yet they are packing for the Final Four. It’s the first time in the school’s history to reach the Final Four.

To get there, Coach Frank Martin’s team had to battle a pesky Florida team.

If it were a military skirmish, it would be hand-to-hand combat. If it were a heavyweight championship match in Madison Square Garden, these two were like identical twins. They were two evenly paired boxers throwing all they had in their arsenal.

South Carolina was down 40-33 at halftime. Florida was on fire from the 3-point line, burying seven treys. They needed every one of them to counter 11 turnovers to the stingy South Carolina defense.

One reason the Gamecocks are going to Arizona for the Final Four, is that they have senior Sindarius Thornwell.
After South Carolina fell, 77-70, Florida Coach Mike White said Thornwell has been an underrated player in college basketball this season. After this game, Thornwell is no longer underrated.

Thornwell said his team never panicked when they trailed at half.

“We’ve been in that situation before,’’ said the SEC’s Most Valuable Player who prepped at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.

He scored 26 points, from every part of the court. He rebounds like a bull seeing a red flag. He has touch in and around the basket. He hit 8 of his 13 shots, nine of his 10 free throws and pulled down 7 rebounds and had two steals.

PJ Dozier dumped in an additional 17 points as the Gamecocks put four players in double figures.

Martin was humble in his post-season interview.

“It’s all these guys,’’ he said of his players. “They believe in each other and they put up with me. . . . I’m the luckiest person in the world.’’

The two teams had split their two regular season games. The Gators had more NCAA Tournament experience, at least in their school history. This was the first time a South Carolina team ever made it to the Elite 8.

“I thought South Carolina made all the plays they needed to,’’ White said. “Thornwell showed why he’s starting to become more appreciated, good for him. Deservingly so, PJ Dozier I thought stymied a couple of our runs with big baskets. They defend as such a high level.’’

The good news is the Gamecocks are now in the Final Four. The bad news is they play Gonzaga, arguably the hottest team in the tournament.

South Carolina won’t back down. They don’t have any of that give-up DNA in them. This marks Gonzaga’s first visit to the Final Four, even though Coach Mark Few’s program has been knocking on the door for years.
Both teams rely on defense, although Few’s team is solid on offense, whereas South Carolina is improving in that area.

When it comes to the Final Four, CBS analyst Kenny Smith noted that when you get this far, it’s not the name on your jersey, it’s the game you bring.

South Carolina brought it.

Joe Biddle is a WKRN.com sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at joebiddle11@gmail.com.