NEW YORK – South Carolina added a missing piece to its rich basketball history.
The school of Frank McGuire, Kevin Joyce, Brian Winters, Mike Dunleavy and Alex English is going to the Final Four for the first time.
Add the names Sindarius Thornwell and Frank Martin to the top of the list.
Thornwell’s 26 points and the Gamecocks’ swarming zone defense meant a 77-70 victory over Florida in the East Regional final on Sunday and a berth in the Final Four.
Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces, led the seventh-seeded Gamecocks to the biggest victory in school history and now they will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona.
“Anyone that’s in sports dreams of moments like this,” said Martin, who was doused with water and dancing as soon as he entered the locker room. “It’s not something that you start dreaming it the year you win 25 games. You dream it every single day.”
The game was as close as expected until the final minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thornwell with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Fourth-seeded Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.
Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell, who scored eight straight points for the Gamecocks, was always where he needed to be. That included being in position to make a steal with 40 seconds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.
“Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays,” Thornwell said.
Teammate Duane Notice knew Thornwell would come through.
“He’s capable of doing anything on both sides of the basketball. So it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “His senior leadership just kicked in. He don’t want us to lose. He don’t want our season to end.”
“Thornwell was just being Thornwell,” Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year as voted by coaches. “He’s one of the best players in the country.”
No. 1 North Carolina 75, No. 2 Kentucky 73
In Memphis, Tennessee, Roy Williams went all “Gone With the Wind” when a player asked about his North Carolina Tar Heels making the last shot Sunday to edge Kentucky to the Final Four.
And the coincidence that the Tar Heels have been on the other end of similar shots recently, like in the 2016 national championship game and then a wild December matchup against the Wildcats.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a . . .,” Williams said with a smile, quoting Clark Gable’s famed line as Rhett Butler. “I didn’t care what he was talking about.”
Luke Maye hit a jumper with 0.3 seconds left and top-seeded North Carolina held off Kentucky 75-73 to earn the Tar Heels a second straight trip to the Final Four, winning a showdown of college basketball’s elite in the South Regional final.
The national semifinal will be the 20th for North Carolina. The Tar Heels (31-7) will play Midwest champ Oregon on Saturday.
North Carolina took control with 12 straight points over the final 5 minutes, a run similar to what it used a week ago to beat Arkansas. The Tar Heels finished this game with a 16-9 run. Kentucky’s freshmen De’Aaron Fox hit a 3 and Malik Monk quickly added two more, this one with 7.2 seconds left and defenders in his face to tie the game at 73.
“I probably should have called time out,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It entered my mind, but they got that son of a B in so quick, I couldn’t get to anybody to do it. I needed to stop that right there.”
Theo Pinson drove enough toward the basket to pick off Maye’s defender, then passed back to Maye. The sophomore from Huntersville, North Carolina, knocked it down for the win with his feet on the 3-point line.
“I just kind of stepped back, and he gave me the ball and I just shot it, and luckily it went in,” Maye said. “It was a great feeling.”