University of Florida

Florida Gators’ run comes to end in Elite Eight as South Carolina heads to Final Four

Maik Kotsar (21) and Justin McKie (20) of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate with their teammates after defeating the Florida Gators with a score of 77 to 70 to win the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden on March 26, 2017 in New York City.
Maik Kotsar (21) and Justin McKie (20) of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate with their teammates after defeating the Florida Gators with a score of 77 to 70 to win the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden on March 26, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images

Clang. Thud. Clunk.

One after another, the Florida Gators kept firing up 3’s inside Madison Square Garden in Sunday’s second half. And one after another, they kept striking iron and not net.

They missed all 14 of their second-half shots from beyond the arc.

And they lost to South Carolina as a result, bowing out of the NCAA Tournament with a 77-70 loss to the surprising Gamecocks, a 7-seed that had gone 44 years without a single NCAA tournament win.

Until now.

“They just didn’t fall for us,” said Gators coach Mike White.

Only 38 hours after Chris Chiozza’s desperation 3-pointer in overtime saved their season, the Gators couldn’t buy one in Sunday’s second half.

KeVaughn Allen, who dropped in a career-high 35 points in Friday’s victory over Wisconsin, missed five.

Justin Leon, who had the hot hand for Florida in the first half, missed four.

Chiozza, Friday’s hero, missed two.

Canyon Barry missed two.

Devin Robinson missed one.

It was reminiscent of the Gators’ January loss to the Gamecocks, when they went 0 for 17 from beyond the arc.

Only this is March, and there is no more basketball to play for the Gators.

“Very, very heartbreaking,” White said. “To make it this far, you’re right there with a chance to go to the Final Four, you’re up seven (40-33) at halftime...”

And then nothing.

Led by their Miami-born head coach Frank Martin, the 7th-seeded Gamecocks are going instead to Arizona and next weekend’s Final Four, where they’ll face top-seeded Gonzaga in one of two semifinal match-ups.

Gonzaga’s high seeding shouldn’t faze them. After all, the Gamecocks have knocked off a No. 2 (Duke), No. 3 (Baylor) and No. 4 (Florida) seed to make it this far.

“Frank’s done an amazing job,” White said of his South Carolina counterpart. “He’s one of those guys, I’m glad he’s going. I would rather have gone than Frank, but I’m happy he’s going.”

Under Martin, the Gamecocks have emerged from the dregs of college basketball. Unlike the Gators, who have won a pair of national titles and reached the Final Four four times since 2000, the Gamecocks have been mired in the pits of the SEC. They had slogged through one losing season after another until Martin took over in 2012.

Martin’s first three seasons went 14-18, 14-20 and 17-16.

But South Carolina finished 25-9 last year and earned a trip to the National Invitation Tournament. Now they’re 26-10 and on a four-win roll in the NCAA’s -- and a first-ever visit to the Final Four.

Martin isn’t doing it alone. The Gamecocks have the SEC Player of the Year in Sindarius Thornwell, who scored a game-high 26 points on Sunday.

“He’s showing the country now why, in my opinion, he’s been under-appreciated,” White said of Thornwell. “He’s one of the best players in the country.”

The Gamecocks’ bench contributed only three points on Sunday.

But they play a tight, in-your-face defense, a defense that put the clamps on Florida in the second half.

After the Gators had gone 7 for 12 on their 3-pointers in the first half, the Gamecocks refused to yield the final 20 minutes. And the Gators, who had pulled out an overtime miracle Friday in a game that did not end until 12:30 a.m., looked fatigued in the second half.

“They had that hard overtime game,” Martin said. “And what was it? 36 hours ago or something like that, by the time they got back to the hotel? Did they kind of run out of juice a little bit? I don't know.”

So Florida’s season ended on Sunday while South Carolina’s continued.

“All we wanted was to make it,” Thornwell said. “All we wanted was a bid in the tournament, to see our name on the board. And when we got our name on the board the rest, we'll take, the rest takes care of itself. All we wanted was a chance.”

  Comments