By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Baylor's pulled off enough "crazy" comebacks this year that even a 21-point second-half deficit didn't look like too big of a hill to climb.
"Call me crazy, I still thought midway through the second half that we were going to win," sophomore guard Jake Lindsey said. "As bad as we had played, I had seen us do crazy stuff, been through crazy stuff out there. So, our mindset, my mindset was just next play."
The problem was that every time the Bears made any kind of run, Sidarius Thornwell and his South Carolina friends answered as the seventh-seeded Gamecocks ended third-seeded Baylor's NCAA Tournament run with a 70-50 loss in the region semifinals Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
"We haven't quit all year, so I knew we would come back and answer, because that's the type of team we have," said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team finished 27-8 with its second Sweet 16 loss in the last four years. "I think we were down 15 against Louisville with nine (minutes to go). So, we knew we would make a run. You've just got to credit them for answering."
Trailing by 15 at the half and by 21 six minutes into the second half, the Bears finally put together a 10-0 run to pull within 49-38 with 10:39 still left. After Jo Lual-Acuil hit a layup, Manu Lecomte drained back-to-back 3-pointers and Al Freeman capped it with a pair of free throws.
"We believed, even at halftime when we were down 15," said Lecomte, who missed seven of his first eight shots. "We had that little run - it was perfect - I finally got it going. But, those dudes had a great game today. Not just Thornwell, but everybody."
It was Thornwell, though, that came up with arguably the shot of the night when he drained a wide-open 3-pointer that ended Baylor's run and pushed the Gamecocks' lead back to 52-38.
Then, fellow senior Duane Notice buried another trey on South Carolina's next possession when freshman forward Maik Kotzar came up with a big offensive board and dished out to him in the corner.
"When you put in all work, and then all of a sudden they hit two big threes like that, it took the air out of us," Drew said. "Those are two big threes by two seniors that didn't want to go home."
Lecomte took it a step further, saying "That was the killer right there."
"It's tough, knowing that we were good enough to be there," sophomore guard King McClure said.
"Tonight just wasn't our night. It's a hard loss, especially when you know that the team that was out there wasn't the team that's been playing all season."
Thornwell was 4-of-10 from 3-point range and finished with a game-high 24 points to go with six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a pair of steals. But, the Gamecocks also got double-digit points from Notice (11), sophomore guard P.J. Dozier (12) and sophomore forward Chris Silva (12).
South Carolina advances to its first Elite Eight and will face fourth-seeded Florida (27-8) in Sunday's region final. The Gators advanced with an 84-83 overtime thriller over eighth-seeded Wisconsin, with point guard Chris Chiozza hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
"It's a good feeling when we continue to make history," Notice said of South Carolina's first trip to the Elite Eight. The Gamecocks had not win an NCAA Tournament game in 44 years before a three-game run that included upsets of second-seeded Duke and No. 3 seed Baylor.
"I think once we got a state of it, we kind of got addicted and went to continue doing it. So, we're going to do everything in our power to make sure we do that."
Other than All-American junior forward Johnathan Motley, who scored 10 of his 18 points in the last 7 ½ minutes of the game, the Bears had no other player in double figures. Lual-Acuil scored just two points in the second half and finished with nine, while senior Ish Wainright failed to score and had four assists, four rebounds and four turnovers in his last game.
"We knew how good we could be, and we were ready to show everybody," said Lindsey, who hit a 3-pointer in the first half for his only points. "And we did. We didn't accomplish everything we wanted to, but we came close. I'm proud of this team, I'm proud of everyone in this locker room, and it was a fun year."
It was a brutal first half for the Bears, who tied a season low with just 22 points on 25 percent shooting (8-of-32).
They overcame some horrible early shooting, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and used a 7-0 run to go up 13-11 on a Motley layup off an assist from Freeman. Taking a feed from Lindsey, Motley drained a jumper from the free-throw line that made it 15-13 with 9:58 left in the half.
After that, South Carolina (25-10) scored 18 unanswered points during a dreadful scoring drought of seven minutes, 44 seconds by the Bears. Baylor turned it over four times and missed 11 shots in that cold spell.
Thornwell scored six in the Gamecocks' run, capping it with a pair of free throws, and then fed Dozier for a 3-pointer that matched a drought-breaking trey by Lindsey.
South Carolina's defense was stifling, particularly in the first half, double-teaming Motley every time he touched the ball.
"Man, it was extremely tough, but that's what they game-planned for, and they did a great job of executing their game plan," Motley said. "We couldn't really buy a basket."
It was a tough ending for what has been one of the best seasons in program history. The Bears were ranked No. 1 for the first time ever, tied for second in the Big 12 and made the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in eight years.
"That's always tough at the end of the year, especially when a team overachieves in many people's eyes, but more importantly because of the character of the young men," Drew said. "They have done a great job on the court, but even a better job off the court representing the university like it wants to be represented. And for coaches, every day coming to practice was a joy, because they made it fun."