Michaux: Gamecocks toast of basketball world

It’s no secret that weirdness has been afoot in the sports world. Cubs winning the World Series. Cleveland winning an NBA title. Some team named Leicester City winning the Premier League one year and fighting off relegation the next.

 

Yet the weirdest thing of all may be South Carolina becoming the relative center of the sports universe.

Native Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open last summer and has risen to the No. 1 ranking in the golf world. His alma mater, Coastal Carolina, won the 2016 College World Series.

Clemson reclaimed its old football swagger and wrested college football’s national title from the clutches of Alabama a year after losing in the championship game.

And now South Carolina’s Gamecocks are the toast of the college basketball world with both its men’s and women’s team reaching the Elite Eight in their respective NCAA tournaments.

“It’s a good feeling when we continue to make history and I think once we got a taste of it we kind of got addicted and want to continue doing it,” said Duane Notice after the Gamecocks men dominated No. 3 seed Baylor 70-50 in Madison Square Garden on Friday night. They get another shot at SEC rival Florida today with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

On Saturday, the women raced out to a 16-0 lead and scored their most points all season in a 100-58 victory over Quinnipiac, advancing to the regional final for the second time in three years. They’ll face a stern test out west against No. 3 seed Florida State.

Most heartening for the women was that Allisha Gray not only played, but scored 19 points and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds. A week ago, Gray had to be carried off the court prompting flashbacks to missing her senior season at Washington County with a knee injury. Gray, however, had only what her coach called a “charley horse” in her hamstring and couldn’t be kept off the court in Stockton, Calif.

“I was very worried,” admitted Gamecocks’ star A’ja Wilson, fearing Gray might join starting post Alaina Coates on the injury list. “Allisha is like my best friend – she’s my sister. So it was kind of tough seeing her get through it, and looking over at the bench and her eyes are all red and she’s crying. And I’m like, ‘Girl, you got to get it together.’ But I knew she’s going to be okay. Allisha, she’s tough. She’s a soldier. It’s good to see her back on the court and doing something that she loves.”

This experience has brought out the best in Gamecocks Nation, which already led the country in attendance for both teams (more than 26,000 combined per game). South Carolina’s baseball team is even moving up game times so it won’t create conflict for its fans to be in position for Sunday’s East Regional final against the Gators.

Playing in New York and California isn’t as convenient for South Carolina’s fans as it was in Greenville and Columbia last week, but the energy carried over with them in both Sweet Sixteen romps.

“Monetarily, it’s hard for them to get out here and support us in the way that they would like to support us,” women’s coach Dawn Staley said. “But at the same time, they will have watch parties and they will send their support and they will be here in spirit. But second to none, what our fans have created for us in our program, they make our team and our program a lifestyle. I’ve never seen anything unfold like this in all of my years of being around basketball.”

The men aren’t playing like a team that went 44 years between NCAA Tournament victories, and they’ve rekindled the passion in a rabid fan base.

“Our fans are taking this ride with us and eventually we’re either going to party together or we’re going to cry together,” said men’s coach Frank Martin. “It’s one or the other. There’s not another alternative there. But that’s the way it needs to be. In fact, I want fans to cry when I cry. I want them to be mad when I go home mad. That’s the only way you know that you got something going on.”

Few things in American sports capture the public fascination quite like March Madness. It’s a three week run worth a billion dollars because the nation loves watching Cinderellas mix it up with basketball’s collegiate blue bloods.

South Carolina’s men have surprised everyone by dismissing Marquette, Duke and Baylor to get to the brink of one of sport’s greatest destinations. The only people not fazed by the run are the Gamecocks themselves.

“We have been doing it all season, it’s just now y’all gave us a stage to do it and we’re just showcasing what we have been doing all season,” Sindarius Thornwell said.

Florida presents a huge challenge. The Gators split with the Gamecocks in the regular season and know what to expect when the game tips. Still, the Gamecocks have tasted success and aren’t ready to end the dream just yet. The men thrive on being the underdog, taking the pressure of the moment off of their shoulders and letting them play free.

“We’re not done yet,” said Gamecocks forward Chris Silva. “We don’t want to just be here. We’re hungry. We want to keep winning.”

The women don’t have the same pressure-free luxury as a No. 1 seed far away from home, but they’ve got experience on their side having reached the Final Four in 2015.

“We still got a mission to complete and that’s to make it to the Final Four national championship,” Gray said.

South Carolina hopes to be the 13th school to send both its men and women to their respective Final Fours in the same season, just as Syracuse did last year and Georgia in 1983. UConn is the only school to sweep both national titles, doing it twice in 2014 and 2004.

The way fortunes have been turning for the Palmetto State lately – stranger things have happened.

“There’s only two alternatives here – we’re either going to celebrate unbelievably (Sunday) night or we’re going to cry real hard,” Martin said. “There’s no in between. It’s one or the other. And that’s what happens when you invest as much as these kids have invested in it.”

 

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