The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Jim O’Con­nell

South Carolina reaches the Fi­nal Four for the first time by beat­ing Florida 77-70.

new york» South Carolina added a miss­ing piece to its rich his­tory in men’s bas­ket­ball.

The school of Frank McGuire, Kevin Joyce, Brian Win­ters, Mike Dun­leavy and Alex English is go­ing to the Fi­nal Four for the first time.

Add the names Sin­dar­ius Thorn­well and Frank Mar­tin to the top of the list.

Thorn­well’s 26 points and the Game­cocks’ swarm­ing zone de­fense fu­eled a 77-70 vic­tory over Florida on Sun­day and a berth in the Fi­nal Four.

Mar­tin, he of the boom­ing voice and ter­ri­fy­ing faces, led the sev­enth­seeded Game­cocks to the big­gest vic­tory in school his­tory and now they will face Gon­zaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Re­gional, in the Fi­nal Four on Satur­day in Glen­dale, Ariz.

“Any­one that’s in sports dreams of mo­ments like this,” said Mar­tin, who was doused with wa­ter and danc­ing as soon as he en­tered his team’s locker room. “It’s not some­thing that you start dream­ing it the year you win 25 games. You dream it ev­ery sin­gle day.”

The East Re­gional ti­tle game was as close as ex­pected un­til the fi­nal minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thorn­well with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Fourth-seeded Florida man­aged just three field goals over the fi­nal 3:55.

Thorn­well, the East Re­gional’s MVP, fol­lowed the de­cid­ing free throws with a nice as­sist to Maik Kot­sar for a four-point lead. Thorn­well, who scored eight con­sec­u­tive points for the Game­cocks, was al­ways where he needed to be — in­clud­ing mak­ing a steal with 40 sec­onds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.

“Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays,” Thorn­well said.

South Carolina’s Duane No­tice knew Thorn­well would come through.

“He’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing any­thing on both sides of the bas­ket­ball. So it doesn’t sur­prise me,” No­tice said. “His se­nior lead­er­ship just kicked in. He don’t want us to lose. He don’t want our sea­son to end.”

“Thorn­well was just be­ing Thorn­well,” Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year. “He’s one of the best play­ers in the coun­try.”

P.J. Dozier added 17 points for the Game­cocks, Chris Silva scored 13 and Kot­sar con­trib­uted 12.

Justin Leon scored 18 points for the Ga­tors, who built a 40-33 half­time lead on 7-for-12 shoot­ing from 3point range. But that was it. Florida was 0-for-14 be­hind the arc in the sec­ond half, a lot like the 0-for-17 ef­fort the Ga­tors (27-9) had in their first meet­ing with South Carolina this sea­son.

“We still got our open looks,” Leon said, “but they just, I guess they just went far­ther than what they were in the first half.”

South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, fin­ished 23-of31 at the free-throw line, in­clud­ing a 9-of-10 ef­fort from Thorn­well.

It was the third con­sec­u­tive game the Game­cocks (26-10) were trail­ing at half­time and went on to win.

“We felt like we was do­ing the right things. We felt like every­thing was go­ing good for us, it was just the ball wasn’t fall­ing in, and we just needed a cou­ple more stops,” Thorn­well said. “So go­ing into half­time, we al­ways just buck­led in and locked in on what we needed to do to win and took it one pos­ses­sion at a time.”

The Ga­tors en­tered the game with a 44-24 record all time against the Game­cocks.

Mad­die Meyer, Getty Images

The South Carolina Game­cocks cel­e­brate af­ter de­feat­ing the Florida Ga­tors on Sun­day in the East Re­gional fi­nal at Madi­son Square Gar­den in New York.

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