NEW YORK (AP) — Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points and South Carolina earned its first trip to the Final Four with a 77-70 victory over Florida on Sunday.
The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) used their trademark swarming defense and some solid free throw shooting to beat their fellow Southeastern Conference Gators (27-9) in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden.
South Carolina will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday at Glendale, Arizona.
The 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. Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.
Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell was always where he needed to be including a steal with 40 seconds left that made it 73-68.
PJ Dozier added 17 points for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Kotsar 12.
It all totaled to a Final Four trip for coach Frank Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces.
Justin Leon had 18 points for the Gators who managed a 40-33 halftime lead on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. But that was it. Florida was 0 for 14 from beyond the arc in the second hald, a lot like the 0-for-17 effort the Gators had in their first meeting with South Carolina this season.
South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, finished 23 for 31 from the free throw line, including a 9-for-10 effort from Thornwell.
South Carolina: This had been South Carolina’s deepest run in the NCAA Tournament. … The Gamecocks beat No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 Baylor on the way to the Elite Eight. … Until this tournament the Gamecocks hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973.
Florida: This was Florida’s first NCAA Tournament game against a Southeastern Conference opponent. … The Gators entered the game with an all-time 44-24 record against the Gamecocks, including 1-2 under coach Mike White. … The Gators were trying for their sixth Final Four appearance and that includes the titles in 2006 and 2007.
Among those in attendance at Madison Square Garden were Hall of Famer Rick Barry, whose son Canyon is on Florida, Paul McCartney and Darius Rucker.
South Carolina will meet Gonzaga in the Final Four on Saturday.