Hugs, tears, and thanks: Gamecocks remember where they started on unlikely road to Final Four

March 28, 2017 GMT

NEW YORK — The nets had been cut down at Madison Square Garden, but the celebration was far from over. A piece of twine firmly knotted to the backstrap of his new Final Four cap, Justin McKie bounded across rows of seats and up to one section of the stands, where his father was waiting for him.

BJ McKie, the Charleston Southern associate head coach and leading scorer in South Carolina history, wrapped his son in a warm, watery-eyed embrace. In the aftermath of Sunday’s victory in the NCAA Tournament East Regional final, it was like that all over — players, coaches and staffers seeking out colleagues and loved ones, remembering where they’d started on this unlikely road to the Final Four.

“It was incredible,” said Justin McKie, a senior guard who had considered transferring earlier in his USC career. “I went and found my dad. I had ups and down for my four years here, and one thing my dad always told me was, ‘McKie men always finish out what they start.’ I started this with Sin and Duane four years ago, and just to see it through, and finish up the way we’re finishing is great.”

USC seniors McKie, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice will finish this greatest Gamecocks basketball season ever in Glendale, Ariz., where they’ll face Gonzaga in the first of two national semifinals Saturday. But before turning their focus to the Bulldogs — the third former AP No. 1 they’ll play in four games — there was an emotional celebration involving player after player racing up into the stands to thank those who had helped them along the way.

Chris Silva dashed up into one comer where he was greeted enthusiastically by assistant basketball coach Tommy Sacks and others from Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey, where the sophomore forward played after moving from his native Gabon. No USC player has come further than Silva, who relocated to the U.S. knowing almost no English, and without ever seeing the Final Four on television.

“That was precious, man,” Silva said afterward in the New York Knicks’ locker room, where the Gamecocks were housed for the East final against Florida. “They were fired up to come here and see me play. Those are the people I won the championship in high school with, so that was sharing another great moment together.”

PJ Dozier raced up to one section of seats at about midcourt, not far above press row. His parents, grandmother, and sisters — including former USC women’s player Asia, who reached her own Final Four with the Gamecocks in 2015 — were all there, the entire family wearing smiles as big and bright as the lights on Broadway.

“I was speechless, man,” said Dozier, USC’s sophomore point guard. “All I could say was, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you to them for all their support, all their love through the whole process.”

Down on the court, head coach Frank Martin made his own rounds. He embraced his wife and children, and his assistant coaches and staff members, most of whom followed him from his previous head-coaching job at Kansas State. Then there was his mother, Lourdes, who escaped the Castro regime in Cuba and instilled a toughness in her son that remains evident to this day.

Mother and son embraced, and more tears flowed.

“Strongest woman I’ve ever met. Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court. Doesn’t make excuses. Worked on a salary as a secretary. Raised my sister and I. We’d go to Wendy’s or Burger King every two Fridays, that was our family meal. She gave me the courage to try and do this for a living,” Martin said later.

“I made her cry one time when I was a teenager because I made the wrong choice. I’m never making her cry again for making the wrong choice. And watching her cry tears of joy because of all her sacrifices have allowed me and my sister to move forward in life — those are the tears that are important to me. That’s extending her life. When you make your mother cry for joy, it gives her more life.”

Martin had others in mind. His high school coach, Marcos “Shakey” Rodriguez, who “took a chance on a guy who wasn’t worth a crap as a player,” and became a father figure in his life. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, his mentor and former boss at Kansas State, who without blinking turned the Wildcats program over to Martin when he departed for Morgantown. Former USC assistants, like new Illinois head coach Brad Underwood and new Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton.

There were so many people to hug, to cry with, to think of, to thank. This South Carolina team, comprised of some players from the Palmetto State and others from around the world, is going to the Final Four for the first time in program history. But Sunday in Madison Square Garden, they all took a moment to remember where they’d been.

“We have a group of guys that comes from far away,” Dozier said. “But at the end of the day, we all have the same mission and the same vision in this program. I think that’s what helps us take this program to the next level.”