Thornwell bottled up by Gonzaga as South Carolina’s run ends
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Maybe it was the lingering effects of flu-like symptoms or maybe it was dealing with all those long-armed defenders Gonzaga kept throwing at him.
Maybe after playing as well as any player in the NCAA Tournament, Sindarius Thornwell was just due for a bad day.
Whatever the reason, Thornwell struggled to assert himself against Gonzaga on Saturday as the Gamecocks’ first trip to the Final Four ended with a 77-73 loss in the national semifinals.
The leading scorer in the tournament coming into the Final Four at 25.8 per game, Thornwell scored 15 points and shot 4-for-12 from the field for seventh-seeded South Carolina (26-11).
He was the last guy on his team to score, hitting a free throw with 3 seconds left that cut the lead to two. He missed his second free throw on purpose but Gonzaga’s Zach Collins rebounded and made two free throws to clinch it.
The problem was, down 3 with 12 seconds left, Thornwell and the Gamecocks never got a 3-pointer off in 9 seconds before Gonzaga was able to foul. The play was set for Thornwell to take a 3 from up top or drive quickly. Instead, Thornwell paused just long enough for Gonzaga to safely foul him without giving up three shots.
“I figured there was enough time where they were not going to foul right away to prevent us from shooting a 3,” coach Frank Martin said. “But when you’ve got fifth-year seniors across the board, like they do, they don’t make mistakes.”
This national championship trophy will not be going back to Columbia, South Carolina. Maybe the Gamecocks women’s team will do better Sunday in that tournament’s title game.
The men fell short with nothing to be ashamed about. For the fourth time in the tournament South Carolina trailed at the half. The Gamecocks were down as many as 14 in the second half, but responded with 14 straight points to tie it at 65.
P.J. Dozier led the rally and the Gamecocks on the day, scoring 17 points. Thornwell had a big jumper in the run and 10 in the second half after a 1-for-5 first half. Still, even Martin seemed befuddled at times with what was going on with the Southeastern Conference player of the year.
Thornwell was held out of practice on Thursday and stayed back at the hotel with a fever and headache while his team met with the media. Thornwell was back with the team the next day.
Thornwell said Saturday he felt some fatigue in the first half, but then — as if catching himself — he added: “But that’s still not an excuse for anything. I was fine. I was fine the whole game.”
The Bulldogs (37-1) threw multiple defenders at Thornwell, but 6-foot-9 Jonathan Williams seemed to give him the most problems.
“They just crowd the paint. My drive, they forced me to pass it out on my drives. And just protecting the rim real well. That was really it. Just forced me to pass the ball on my drives,” Thornwell said.
Often the Gamecocks had a hard time even getting the ball to Thornwell.
“We had J3 (Williams) guarding him for a while. So we had a 4-man,” Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “Then I took him on a couple of possessions. Sometimes we stayed on his — trailed his screens. Sometimes we switched him. So we just tried to keep him off balance and just make it as tough as possible. He’s a great player and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to contain him.”
Thornwell wasn’t able to complete South Carolina’s surprising tournament run, but he leaves Gamecocks basketball better than he found it and with the greatest postseason performance in school history.
“It’s been great,” Thornwell said. “I thank everybody for the support, coming in. We never thought we’d be here, but we worked every day. We never gave up, us seniors that came in, in the situation we were in, we never gave up.”
Martin’s program has gotten better every season since he arrived in 2012. Asked to reflect on what this team has done for South Carolina basketball, America’s most intense coach needed 30 seconds to compose himself.
“There’s something powerful when you impact others. And what these kids have done is pretty special,” Martin said, with tears in his eyes. “And they’ve impacted our community in an unbelievable way, which is worth so much more than the score of a game.
“There’s a lot of young kids that want to be the next Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie, and I don’t get to coach them anymore, but they’re part of my life forever.”