JOE BIDDLE: Zags escape

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)

South Carolina got off on a slow start against favored Gonzaga.

Sindarius Thornwell was the SEC Player of the Year and a bout with the flu showed during the game. The Gamecocks star was not his self. His shots in the first half were short or off line.

Thornwell hit only one of his five shots in the first half and one of his three 3-point attempts. It was easy to see he was struggling to find more energy.

But Thornwell and the Gamecocks came storming back in the second half, down by as many as 11 points early in the second half. The lead stretched to 14 points and it looked like gloomy sailing for South Carolina.

Give credit to South Carolina and Coach Frank Martin, a team that wasn’t supposed to get this far according to the experts.

“”It was just an awesome, awesome basketball game,’’ Zags Coach Mark Few said.

At one point the 7-seed Gamecocks took a 67-65 lead early in the second half, but it was short-lived. They were down three points late in the game when Thornwell stepped to the line and made the first free throw to close the score to 75-73. He intentionally tried to miss the second free throw with only 2.2 seconds remaining. He had no other choice , in hopes of his team getting a rebound and tying the score.

It didn’t work, allowing Gonzaga to tack on two more free throws where it ended up 77-73.

Thornwell, who was the leading scorer in the tournament averaging 25.8 points a game, was held to 15 points Saturday, hitting only four of his 12 shots.

South Carolina still managed to make a 16-point run to catch the Zags in the second half.

“That run that South Carolina made on us, that just shows the heart of a lion that they have, that Frank (Martin) instills in them . . . And it took everything we had to hold them off and come back,’’ Few said.

The Gamecocks ran out of time and gas, but had nothing to hang their heads about.

“It’s who we were,’’ Martin said after the game. “That’s why I’ve been so positive. I told them after the game that people keep score. That score goes away when these kids get home and they’ll know what they have done and the hurt will go away.’’

They were the team that crashed the party. They were the team that was just another team in the SEC, finishing fourth in the regular season.

They were the team that caught fire and showed their mettle after they got into the field of 68 as a 7-seed. They threw a scare in 1-seed Gonzaga, a team that won every game except the last one in their regular season.

Zags Coach Mark Few credited his team for sticking together and not falling apart when they had chances to do so. They had been to three Elite Eights under Few and never advanced to the Final Four.

Few was known as the best college basketball coach that had never reached the Final Four.

Few and his players knew they were in a fight with South Carolina and managed to weather the storm.

It’s what March Madness is all about.

Joe Biddle is a sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He can be reached a