GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the years before South Carolina ended its decade-long NCAA Tournament drought, the Gamecocks frequently found themselves down by a lot during the second halves of their games.
Once that situation presented itself, the Gamecocks rarely took the lead, but they never stopped trying.
“A couple years ago, we weren’t good enough to win games yet and our spirit was never broken,” USC coach Frank Martin said after his team’s loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four on Saturday. “We’d lose games, but we’d never lose our fight.”
That spirit served the Gamecocks well once the program was good enough to play games that mattered, and it nearly took them to Monday’s championship game.
USC trailed by nine at the half against the Bulldogs, and the Zags slowly built that lead over the opening minutes of the second half. The lead grew to 14 points when the Zags scored nine points over three possessions, punctuated by a three-point play by Nigel Williams-Goss that put them up 65-41 with 10:55 left in the game.
“I think it was just a lack of energy. It’s a pretty big stage and none of us on this team ever been on this type of stage or platform,” South Carolina’s Rakym Felder said. “It’ s just huge and it felt so good to be out there. That can overwhelm you sometimes. Being in all them fans, it’s crazy. So we had to settle in and be us.”
South Carolina responded to that potential body blow with a a three-point play of its own, and then P.J. Dozier blocked Jordan Mathews’ answer. Dozier hit a jumper and then Chris Silva’s steal led to a 3-pointer by Sindarius Thornwell.
In 2 minutes the Gamecocks outscored the Zags 10-0. They erased the deficit when Dozier hit a jump shot with 7:42 to play, and took a 67-65 lead when Felder completed the 16-0 run with a pair of free throws.
The run took 3:49 off the clock. During that time, the Gamecocks drew five fouls, blocked three shots and forced the Zags into two additional turnovers.
Zach Collins finally got the Zags’ offense moving again when he rattled home a 3-pointer on the following possession, but a potential blowout had become a nail-biter. Silva said the run encapsulated what Martin has instilled in the team as he built it from SEC also-ran to national title contender.
“You know, from the beginning he prepared us for actions like that, when situations get tougher, he wants to see how we handle it,” Silva said. “If we don’t respond well, he’s going to be here to support us and tell us what to do.”
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