By Ken Cross
So how do the South Carolina Gamecocks upstage their 93-73 NCAA Tournament win over Marquette, the team’s first win in NCAA play since 1973? How about going out and knocking off a Duke team that was considered invincible, by some, in this tournament even though they had eight losses?
Yes, it happened to the tune of 88-81 and it placed South Carolina in it’s first Sweet 16 in the school’s history. The Gamecocks scored 65 points, a record against a Mike Krzyzewski defense and shot 71.4 percent from the floor in the second half.
“They’ve become mentally tough, as mentally tough as can be,” said Carolina coach Frank Martin, who has presided over what has become a five-year rebuild, “For us to be able to play against a team like Duke and play so well on the big stage says a lot about the character of our team.”
The Gamecocks made seven of a whopping 35 shots in the first half and trailed by only seven at the break. The game changed immediately in the second half as South Carolina scored 12 points in the first four minutes, making five of six shots and it gave the team confidence which would breed throughout the second half.
“We just made shots and got the ball inside,” said senior Sindarius Thornwell, who led four Gamecocks in double figures with 24 points, “Chris (Silva) did a good job of posting up and we just fed him.”
Silva had a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds as the sophomore played his best game in a South Carolina uniform of his young career. He scored six points in a 14-3 Gamecocks run that saw a 35-25 deficit turn into the first Carolina lead since 4-2 on an alley-oop dunk by Silva.
“They fed me the ball,” said Silva, “I was making the move and attacking the basket. I was posting up and they did a good job finding me and feeding me the ball.”
Silva’s aggression and output was lauded by Martin, who is seeing his most talented big man grow into a major cog on both ends of the floor.
“I’m harder on Chris Silva than anyone on our team because he can be so good and he’s just learning the game,” said Martin, “He played like a grown man in the second half.”
— Gamecock MBB (@GamecockMBB) March 20, 2017
Martin was confident at halftime, based on the low shooting percentage and the score. He was ready for the perceived fatigue of the Blue Devils to kick in and when P.J. Dozier capped a 16-5 Gamecocks run and they jumped on top 62-53, they started going down hill.
“They came out (after halftime) and we attacked the paint,” said Martin, “Duane Notice drove the ball, got it to the rim, P.J. made some shots, and Ra’ Felder jumped up and made that three and everybody felt better. Duane makes one and Sin makes one and everyone felt better.”
Duke didn’t score from the field in a five-and-a-half minute span. Frank Jackson, Jayson Tatum, and Grayson Allen were all short on shots. That physical defense and relentless mindset had taken it’s toll and Duke was 0-of-7 from the floor with two turnovers in that stretch. The 16 points on 18 turnovers was even more of a testament to the wearing down of the Blue Devils.
“I’m not surprised that we played the way we did in the second half,” explained Martin, “Once we settled down, I was happy with how we were defending. I thought we shot some quick threes that we didn’t need to shoot. Unlike yesterday, yesterday we shot good threes. Today, that was not part of what we were trying to do.”