I started watching college basketball when I was seven years old. The first game I can remember was the 1977 NCAA final between North Carolina and Marquette, and I was immediately hooked. It wasn’t March Madness back then, but it wasn’t long after that the moniker took hold.
There seemed to be something magical every year. 1979, Magic beat Bird. 1982, Jordan, a freshman, finally gave Dean Smith a title. 1983, Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg’s miss. 1985, Villanova plays a perfect game against Georgetown. 1987, Keith Smart’s cold-blooded jumper. 1988, Danny Manning carries undermanned Kansas.
As a child of the 80’s, and a huge sports fan, these games shaped me, and are the reason the NCAA Tournament remains my favorite sporting event. It rarely, if ever, disappoints.
But there has always been something missing – my alma mater.
I didn’t become a South Carolina fan until my freshman year in 1987, but that was still well past USC basketball’s “glory days” during the late 60s and early 70s. I attended games at the old, sterile concrete jungle we called Carolina Coliseum. Back in those days we were an independent in football, but played in the Metro Conference in basketball. That’s right, the Metro Conference.
Our home slate included games against the likes of Florida State, Memphis State, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. There was better fan support than the team warranted most games, but since you’re more than likely a Gamecock fan reading this that shouldn’t come as a surprise. We had a blast at those games, and we’d get in line early every week when student tickets were distributed.
Some really nice players came through when I was in school, including JoJo English, Joe Rhett, Barry Manning, John Hudson, Terry Dozier and Jamie Watson. We were never really bad, but we were never really good either. We had just enough to give good teams a run for their money, and occasionally not enough to prevent bad losses to inferior teams.
We made the tournament in 1989 and were ousted in the first round by NC State. We then wandered the desert for eight years until the remarkable breakthrough season of 1996-97. We won the SEC title outright and earned a #2 seed in our region. I thought, finally, I get to see MY team make a run in the Big Dance.
Then 1997-98 was almost as good. We earned another high seed, #3, and surely we wouldn’t blow this opportu…
Six years later we squeezed into the tournament as a #10 seed and were promptly ousted by Memphis.
That was it. Forty-four years without a win in the NCAA Tournament. Only four tournament appearances for me personally as a fan. Two historical faceplants out of those four appearances.
This was Gamecock basketball.
Then two weeks ago, after 13 long years, we secured another one of those elusive bids. We earned a #7 seed in the East Regional, along with defending national champion Villanova and perennial power Duke. We didn’t exactly storm into the tournament, having lost six of our last nine games. Still, the excitement of that bid brought a renewed optimism among the faithful that we would be able to beat Marquette and get the NCAA monkey off our back. We weren’t exactly sure how we were going to do it, but we decided to believe.
As it turns out, we did it the same way we thrashed teams like Michigan and Syracuse in December – suffocating defense. After the first 10 minutes of shaking off nerves, the Gamecocks were pressuring, rotating and flying to the ball in a manner we hadn’t seen in several weeks. They pulled away in the last six minutes to end that blasted tourney drought.
“Good enough for me,” I thought. “This tournament is already a success. With Duke looming, anything more than just this is gravy.” Thank God our team didn’t think that way.
The Blue Devils entered the NCAAs as a favorite after playing their best basketball of the season and winning the ACC tournament championship. The stage was overwhelming early for USC as Duke built a 10-point lead, and carried a 7-point lead into the half. After halftime, we saw what might have been the best 20 minutes of Carolina basketball in my lifetime.
The Gamecocks scored a record 65 points in the second half, the most ever scored against a Mike Krzyzewski team. It was a stunning upset, and is still the upset of the tournament. South Carolina just doesn’t beat a team like Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Hell, until Marquette they quite simply didn’t beat ANYBODY in the NCAA Tournament. After all those years, we were finally part of the Madness. On the good side.
Baylor? Baylor had no chance in the Sweet Sixteen. The Gamecocks mauled the Bears from the get-go, continuing to steamroll over anything in their way. I couldn’t believe this was my team. Our team. Now the national darling of March.
Yesterday, against a familiar and formidable foe, I was finally greedy. I didn’t think for a minute it would be all right to lose to Florida. My only thought was how heartbreaking it would be to get this close – THIS CLOSE – and not make it to the Final Four. I don’t really know how to gauge levels of nervousness, but I’m guessing on a scale of 1 to 10 I was about a 27 for two hours. I was dying as the Gators were draining threes in the first half. Contested, uncontested, banked, it didn’t matter, they were on fire.
I told my son at the half things would even out. Teams that on average shoot 35% from behind the arc don’t typically shoot 58% for an entire game. They’d stop falling, and if they didn’t, you just tip your cap. I said it with confidence, but I’m not sure I believed it.
It was obvious early in the second half the Gamecocks had decided to stop playing around. They were back to being hellhounds on defense. Shots were falling. That second half intensity overwhelmed Florida down the stretch, and they went 0-14 on three-pointers. Only for a brief moment, on a USC turnover and Chris Chiozza layup, did I think it might be slipping away.
When Maik Kotsar drilled a 10-footer with two minutes left – the shot of the game – I started to think it might be coming true. We tried to make it interesting, missing a few free throws down the stretch. But when Chiozza was stripped by PJ Dozier in the final seconds, and Duane Notice slammed home the last points to send South Carolina to the Final Four, all those years of futility and frustration were washed away.
My team, our team, South Carolina, was in the Final Four.
I’m not saying anything here any of you haven’t already thought or said. I don’t have any special words to use to describe what we’ve witnessed. It’s been unbelievable, unreal, surreal, special, spectacular, and on and on. I’ve consumed every article, watched every highlight, video and GIF. I don’t know if a team has ever made me as proud as this Gamecock basketball team. It’s all been so unexpected.
The man responsible is Frank Martin. He wanted out of Kansas State so badly that five years ago he decided to take over a program mired in sub-mediocrity for decades. He had a plan, he implemented his plan, and he asked us to be patient. It hasn’t been easy. When he was suspended a few years ago for an outburst at Duane Notice on the bench, I thought maybe we had seen the last of him. He wasn’t winning, and his brash personality wasn’t sitting well with everyone. But he returned, and as time went by you saw how much his players adored him and how hard they played for him and our university.
I genuinely believe to Frank Martin this journey isn’t about Frank Martin. He cares about the players he coaches like they’re his own family, and he insists they appreciate our university and represent us with respect. He preaches about life, and teaches life lessons through basketball. His players love him and would run through a wall for him. As a matter of fact they’ve been running through walls for him the last two weeks.
On the player side, no one at the University of South Carolina should ever wear the number 0 on a basketball court again. Sindarius Thornwell, like his team, has exceeded expectations beyond our wildest dreams. At the beginning of the year he was maybe a top 10 player in South Carolina history. After an SEC Player of the Year regular season he may have moved near the top 5. After the last two weeks the only names you can put in the same sentence with him are Roche and English. Martin said he likes players with some “dog” in them. Thornwell epitomizes this, guarding guys four and five inches taller than him on the defensive side, then being equally adept at knocking down threes or banging in the paint for an and-1 on offense. He is quite simply a legend.
The supporting cast, absent many nights during the regular season, has been incredible during this run. I could write a paragraph each about Silva, Felder, Kotsar, Notice and the rest of the bench and their contributions. Every night someone else has stepped up their game in a supporting role. The NCAA Tournament has a way of making players elevate their game to meet the moment. Our guys have done that.
Finally, I have to say how proud I am of our fans. New York became Gamecock Central (h/t to Gamecock Central) and it was so much fun to watch you guys take it over. We’ve engaged with many of you over social media and it’s been a blast. It’s definitely great to be a Gamecock.
So let me close this out before it becomes one big “I love you man”.
Regarding the Final Four, if this team didn’t give one more ounce to us fans they’ve still given more than enough. But from what I’ve seen not giving their best is not an option for any single guy on that squad. I expect to see the hellhounds in full force against Gonzaga.
No matter the outcome, this has been one great ride. And more than I ever could have expected.