The SEC invaded Madison Square Garden on Sunday, where No. 7 South Carolina kept its Cinderella story alive by powering through No. 4 Florida, 77-70, to earn its first-ever trip to the Final Four.
South Carolina's gritty defense in the program's first appearance in the Elite Eight flustered Florida into relying on three-pointers. Worn down as the game progressed, the Gators' inability to hit a shot from deep in the second half decided the outcome as South Carolina pulled away and brought Madison Square Garden to life:
SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell paced the Gamecocks with a game-high 26 points, while forward Chris Silva navigated foul trouble for most of the game before finishing with 13 points and a game-high nine rebounds. As a whole, South Carolina shot 49.1 percent from the floor (26-of-53), with Maik Kotsar adding 12 and PJ Dozier chipping in 17.
Justin Leon—who was averaging 7.1 points heading into Sunday—led all Gators in scoring with 18 points. Two others scored in double digits, but going 7-of-26 from deep with none falling in the second half told the whole story.
Both teams entered Sunday ranked among the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com—South Carolina was second and Florida was fourth—which seemed to set the stage for a defensive slugfest.
At first, it looked like the SEC battle would come as advertised. There were eight lead changes in as many minutes and 18 total turnovers by halftime. The Gamecocks hopped out to an early advantage via defense and smooth contributions from all over the court:
By halftime, though, the Gators had a 40-33 advantage. The turning point was Silva getting into foul trouble around the nine-minute mark of the first half, which opened up the lane and allowed the Gators to speed up the tempo.
It would be an understatement to call the change in approach a success. The Gators hit five consecutive deep shots to steal the lead and swing momentum their way. Leon's 13 points led the way at halftime, while the team as a whole shot 53.8 percent from the floor (14-of-25) and 58.3 percent from deep (7-of-12). Shots like this helped the average:
Thornwell did what he could with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but he was one of only two Gamecocks with more than four points.
It was important to step back during halftime and add context to the recent history between these SEC foes, as ESPN Stats & Info did:
Perhaps the more notable nugget about recent history? South Carolina had trailed at halftime in three of its four NCAA tournament games. CBS Sports' Seth Davis described the potential trap awaiting Florida: "South Carolina just wears on you. That's why they're a second-half team. Not cause they get better, opponents get mentally tired."
Davis' words proved prophetic. The Gamecocks surged out of the gates in the second half and kept the game close, clearly flustering Florida. The close battle was only made better by Verne Lundquist getting in on the action:
The Gamecocks took the lead around the 11:30 mark, as the Gators began going cold from the floor under the pressure. They missed their first 12 attempts of the half from deep.
Florida didn't always miss when forced inside to battle Silva and others, such as this highlight from by KeVaughn Allen:
But even that one didn't come easy. Down the stretch, the Gamecocks defense put the team in transition twice, with the freshman Kotsar providing the dagger:
The Gamecocks didn't lack creativity, and they were willing to gamble while running out the clock late:
South Carolina now heads to the Final Four, where top-seeded Gonzaga awaits, sporting the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency rating at KenPom. It sets up a battle of wills between defensive powerhouses angling to play for a title.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Gonzaga-South Carolina is the first Final Four matchup between programs making debuts on such a stage since 1973.
On the way to the program's first Final Four appearance, the Gamecocks were in a celebratory mood while gearing up to cut down the nets.
Thornwell talked about his team's character:
As did Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin:
Florida head coach Mike White had nothing but kind words for the Gamecocks while praising SEC basketball as a whole:
The Gators faced questions as to whether the overtime affair against Wisconsin on Friday played into Sunday's loss. Leon didn't buy into talk about fatigue, according to Scott Carter of the Florida Gators' official website: "We gave ourselves plenty of time to prepare for the game."
Leon also talked about moving forward after a surprising run, per Carter: "I know a lot of people didn't have us going this far. When you face adversity, you've just got to keep going, like now."
Advanced metrics courtesy of ESPN.com.