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Gonzaga Basketball

South Carolina beats Florida, will face Zags in the Final Four

South Carolina forward Chris Silva (30) grabs a rebound against Florida during the second half of the East Regional championship game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 26, 2017, in New York. (Julio Cortez / AP)

Gonzaga is not the only gate-crasher to dance all the way to the Final Four for the first time this year. Its opponent, South Carolina, also made the NCAA Tournament’s final quartet for the first time after beating Florida 77-70 on Sunday afternoon.

The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) did not pull away until the end of their battle with the fourth-seeded Gators. The game saw the lead change 14 times, the 14th coming when Sindarius Thornwell hit a pair of free throws to put South Carolina up 65-63 with 2:24 left in the game.

Thornwell scored eight straight points in the game’s final minutes, including a steal and score to give his team a five-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Thornwell, who scored 26 points, was named the regional MVP. He was also named the SEC’s Player of the Year during the regular season. Despite his obvious talents, Thornwell has only recently gained the notoriety afforded to stars at more traditional basketball powers.

South Carolina made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 this season and just the ninth time in school history. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973 and had never advanced further than the Sweet 16.

South Carolina had a tough road to the Final Four, though the Gamecocks traversed it in convincing fashion. They opened the tournament with a 20-point blowout of No. 10 seed Marquette, then upset No. 2 seed Duke 88-81 in the second round. They made it to the Elite Eight for first time in school history by beating No. 3 seed Baylor 70-50.

The Gamecocks win with stifling defense, like other teams GU has faced in this tournament (cough, West Virginia) and like the Zags themselves. While South Carolina only ranks No. 121 in offensive efficiency, their defense is the fourth-most efficient unit in the country.

They play with the rugged style that is a trademark of their coach, Frank Martin, a former bouncer whose teams at Kansas State were known for their physicality. Baylor’s offense, one of the best in the country, had it worst shooting night of the year against the Gamecocks.