South Carolina: the Cinderella Story of March: Underdog, 7-seed South Carolina’s defense leads them to Final Four

Evin Hartsock, Sports Editor

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    When March Madness kicked off earlier this month, it seemed like it was going to be quite a disappointing year. As the first weekend of the tournament came to a close, the upsets – which make the tournament so sweet, were almost non-existent. Though as the tournament progressed into the later rounds, it seemed as if the upsets were just late to the big dance this year.

    Higher seeds finally started to fall and the madness finally began to ensue. A tournament that started out rather slowly ended up being one of the most unpredictable in recent years as we saw 11-seed Xavier and this year’s Cinderella team, 7-seed South Carolina make it to the Elite Eight.
While Xavier’s run ended with a loss to a number 1 Gonzaga team, the South Carolina Gamecocks shocked the world as they downed 4-seed Florida to make the Final Four for the first time in program history.

     Speaking of firsts, top seeded Gonzaga is also making their first trip to the Final Four. Oregon is making its first Final Four appearance since they won the inaugural NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament 78 years ago. North Carolina, who rounds out the Final Four teams, is no stranger to this round of the tournament as they now hold the record for most Final Four appearances.

     While all these teams had impressive runs through the tournament, the most impressive of the bunch has to be South Carolina. When the tournament field was set, the Gamecocks were given less than a one percent chance of making it this far. Out of the 18.8 million brackets submitted to ESPN, only a few hundred people had South Carolina as one of the last teams standing. So how was this year’s Cinderella story able to pull off such a feat? Well, one of the largest factors was defense.

     The Gamecocks had a solid defense all season and that trend continued into the tournament. During the regular season, South Carolina was able to hold opposing offenses to an average of 64.9 points per game, which ranked in the top 40 in the nation. Some of their most impressive defensive performances came against Michigan, who they held to just 46 points, and Florida, who only managed to put up 53 against the Gamecocks.

 
     In tournament play, South Carolina was able to hold Marquette, who had the 17th-best offense in the nation during the regular season, to just 73 points. Marquette had been averaging 82 a game in the regular season. In their second round matchup with 2-seed Duke, their defensive pressure caused the Blue Devils to turn the ball over a whopping 18 times.

     They held Duke to just 41 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range, which is impressive for a team that only played three ranked opponents in the regular season. The Blue Devil’s leading scorer and star guard Luke Kennard, was held to 11 points on 1-6 shooting from the field and 1-4 from the three-point line.

     The Gamecocks kept the defensive intensity that got them through the first two rounds and brought it with them as they took on 3-seed Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen. Again, South Carolina was able to hold a Baylor offense that had been averaging 72 points a game to just 50 on the night. The Gamecocks were able to move through screens and get after shooters, forcing Baylor to make only 30 percent of their shots from the field and a low 23 percent from three.

     Despite only beating Florida by seven points in their Elite Eight match-up, South Carolina’s defense was still very prevalent in the game. The Gamecocks’ ability to apply constant pressure to shooters and ball handlers proved to be the difference as Florida was unable to get in an offensive rhythm for most of the game. The Gators managed to shoot just 41 percent from the field, and made only 26.9 percent of their shots from three-point land.

     Although the Gamecocks’ defense has clearly been their greatest asset throughout the course of the tournament, their offense can’t be looked over. South Carolina has averaged 82 points per game in the tournament and has been led by senior guard Sindarious Thornwell, who has been very effective in March. Thornwell has averaged just over 26 points per game since the tournament started a few weeks ago, and has also averaged 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2 steals per game as. Thornwell has been the heart and soul of this Cinderella squad, doing a little bit of everything for the team and has been one of March’s biggest surprises.

     As unlikely as South Carolina’s march to the Final Four has been, it seems as though it’s just what everyone needed this March after a slow start. The Gamecocks will have their hands full when they face 1-seed Gonzaga on Saturday as they’ve proven to be one of the most complete teams in this year’s tournament. However, if South Carolina can keep doing what they’ve been doing, who knows what will happen. David has beaten Goliath before. The Gamecocks have proven that this March time and time again. There’s a reason it’s called March Madness.