Take a snapshot of the last nine games of South Carolina’s regular season and conference tournament appearance and you know what you see? A team whose coach was probably on the hot seat if they lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Gamecocks went 19-4 overall and 9-1 in SEC play when they beat Georgia 77-75 in February. They had lost to Kentucky two weeks earlier but they were looking good overall for the second seed in the SEC Tournament and a top four seed for March Madness.

That’s when the struggle began.

First came the four-overtime loss to Alabama, a game that could easily be written off as a fluke, except that it taxed three starters – SIndarius Thornwell, P.J. Dozier, and Duane Notice into playing the equivalent of two games just to end up with a loss; the three starters ranged between 54-56 minutes play. Even Thornwell’s 44-point, 21-rebound effort wasn’t worth that.

The team bounced back with a win over Mississippi State but followed that with three straight losses to Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Florida in which they allowed an average of 78.3 points per game.

By the end of the streak, they were back to being unranked. They bounced back slightly with wins over non-Tournament teams Mississippi State and Tennessee, before losing to Ole Miss to end the regular season. The Gamecock has a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament, and then lost to Alabama again, this time only scoring 53 points in an 11-point loss. After the game, Coach Frank Martin had some anxiety that the Gamecocks would make the tournament at all, saying, “At the end of the day, the (tournament selection) committee is not going to call me to ask my opinion. So what I think and what I feel is completely irrelevant to the whole situation. But if they feel we won enough, they put us in.”

So what the heck has happened the last two weeks?

Defense.

The answer to any team’s problems and the answer to how you make a run through a murderer’s row of opponents, which is exactly what the Gamecocks have done in eliminating No. 2, No. 3 Baylor, and No. 4 Florida all in a row.

They opened the tournament by blitzing Marquette with a 54-33 second-half advantage to take their first NCAA win since March 17, 1973, led by Alex English’s 22 points. That win was expected by most; the 88-81 upset of Duke was not. Particularly when the Gamecocks trailed 30-23 at halftime, only to score 65 points in the second half. That’s the most points that a Mike Krzyzewski Duke team has ever allowed in a half. Ever.

South Carolina held Duke to 5-of-19 shooting on three-pointers in the second half and forced 18 turnovers.

Even then most pundits were calling it just an upset, not taking the Gamecocks that seriously. That is until they handed Baylor the Bears’ worst tournament loss ever, 70-50. Fifty points in a 40-minute game. That’s horrifying. Baylor had 49 shots contested, and only made seven of them. The win over Florida was probably the toughest because the Gators know the Gamecocks best. Down seven at halftime, the Gamecocks used a combination of offensive rebounds and smothering defense to open the second half on 18-8 run to turn a 40-33 deficit into a 51-48 lead.

When Florida pulled within 70-68 in the final minute, South Carolina turned up the intensity and outscored the Gators 7-2, forcing two of the Gators’ 16 turnovers in the span.

Thornwell is the best overall remaining player in the tournament, averaging 25.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 2.5 assists, and 1.0 blocks per game in his first four games. Pairing him with a lockdown defense might just be the winning combination for finishing his Cinderella story.

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