GLENDALE, Ariz. – South Carolina had the ball exactly where it wanted it, in the hands of senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, with the game and its season on the line.
Thornwell had literally and figuratively put the South Carolina team on his back throughout the NCAA Tournament and led the Gamecocks to the Final Four. With less than 12 seconds to play and the Gamecocks trailing 75-72, the ball was in his hands, but Thornwell never got the opportunity to take the last shot.
With three seconds to play Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins fouled Thornwell 25feet from the basket, sending the 83 percent free throw shooter to the line.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin wanted Thornwell to make the first free throw, which he did, and then miss the second one to the left, hoping that Gamecocks forward Chris Silva could tap the ball out to a teammate to get a last-second shot to send the game into overtime or win it in regulation with a 3-pointer.
Thornwell missed the second free throw by design, but Gonzaga’s big men did a good job of blocking out Silva and Killian Tillie came down with the crucial rebound.
“The plan was to miss it left and hopefully, Chris could tap it out to someone,” Thornwell said. “That was the plan, it just didn’t work out that way.”
The Zags would end up winning the game, 77-73, after Tillie’s two free throws and will play in Monday night’s national championship game.
It wasn’t the kind of game that Thornwell and Gamecocks fans had come to expect from their star player, especially in the NCAA Tournament.
On paper, Thornwell had a solid game, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds of two assists, but it wasn’t the super-human effort that the Gamecocks needed to make it to Monday night.
Gonzaga’s defense certainly did its share in limiting what Thornwell did on the floor, but he wasn’t the same player he had been in Greenville or New York when he almost single-handedly led the Gamecocks past the likes of Duke, Baylor and Florida.
He barely touched the ball for much of the second half as the Bulldogs did their best to limit his effectiveness.
“They crowd the paint,” Thornwell said. “They forced me to pass it out of my drives. And they just did a good job of protecting the rim. That was really it, they just took the ball out of my hands on my drives.”
Thornwell, who had missed Thursday’s practice with flu-like symptoms, said his illness had nothing to do with his lack of scoring.
“I was 100 percent,” Thornwell said. “I think the first half I was a little fatigued a little bit, but that’s still no excuse for anything. I was fine. I was fine the whole game.”
Thornwell had been averaging 25.8 points during the NCAA Tournament. He made just four shots on 12 attempts and only two 3-pointers.
The Zags put three different players on Thornwell, mixed up their defenses and hounded the 6-5, 210-pound senior all over the floor.
Nigel Williams-Goss, the Bulldogs’ top offensive player, said they knew Thornwell’s tendencies and forced him to get the ball in positions he wasn’t comfortable with.
“Give our coaching staff a lot of credit,” said Williams-Goss, who finished with a team-high 23 points. “They prepared us for his tendencies, and they do a great job of preparing us for their counters. We just tried to give him different looks. I guarded him, Josh (Perkins), had him, Zach was on him for a couple of possessions. Sometimes we stayed on him, sometimes we trailed his screens. Sometimes we switched.
“We wanted to keep him off balance and just make it as tough as possible. He’s a great player and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to contain him.”
Without Thornwell, the Gamecocks would have never made it to Arizona, South Carolina freshman guard Rakym Felder said.
“Some days you have good days, some days you have a bad game,” Felder said. “I think overall he did good. He’s been good all season, you can’t knock him. That’s my guy right there. He’s a great player, a tough player.”