NEW YORK (CBSMiami/SportsDirect) – A prime rivalry in the Southeastern Conference has found its way into the Elite Eight.
The third time really will be the charm for SEC rivals South Carolina and Florida, who split their regular-season series and meet in a rubber match Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament East Region at Madison Square Garden with a spot in the Final Four on the line.
To say the teams took different paths from the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight would be an understatement.
Seventh-seeded South Carolina used an 18-0 first half run to back another strong defensive performance, forcing 16 turnovers while holding Baylor to 30.4 percent shooting to grind out a surprisingly lopsided 70-50 upset of the third-seeded Bears on Friday.
“We’ve been doing it all season,” senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year, said after scoring a game-high 24 points and grabbing six rebounds. “Now, y’all gave us the stage to do it, and we’re just showcasing what we’ve been doing all season.”
Fourth-seeded Florida advanced with a dramatic 84-83 overtime victory over No. 8 seed Wisconsin, winning on junior guard Chris Chiozza’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer five minutes after guard Zak Showalter capped a late 12-point Badgers comeback with a dramatic leaping, one-legged 3-pointer of his own to force overtime.
“I don’t know how it happened, I just know it went in,”Chiozza said. “Now, we have another game to play.”
TV: 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS
ABOUT SOUTH CAROLINA (25-10): Despite garnering SEC Player of the Year honors, the 6-5, 211-pound Thornwell was still somewhat under the radar on a national level before the NCAA Tournament but made the most of the big stage, averaging 25.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game while also connecting on 10-of-22 3-pointers.
“He’s had an unbelievable year,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said adding, “I’m happy he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
Sophomore guard PJ Dozier (13.7 per game this season), senior guard Duane Notice (10.3) and 6-9 sophomore forward Chris Silva (10.1) join Thornwell (21.4) in averaging double figures for the Gamecocks, who try to advance to the Final Four for the first time.
ABOUT FLORIDA (27-8): Chiozza, who finished with eight points, five assists and four rebounds, will be remembered for his dramatic game-winner but it was the play of sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen that carried the Gators for most of the game.
Allen, who leads the team in scoring (14.1), finished with 35 points against Wisconsin, a school record for an NCAA Tournament game.
Senior guard Canyon Barry (11.6), son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, and junior forward Devin Robinson (11.3) also average in double-digits for the Gators, who managed to adjust after losing top rebounder John Egbunu (7.8 points, 6.6 boards) to a torn left ACL in a Feb. 14 victory at Auburn.
- Barry, who is shooting a team-best 88.3 percent from the line, shoots his free throws underhand like his famous father and set a school record by making 42 in a row earlier this season.
- South Carolina, which ranks fifth nationally in turnovers forced per game (17.3), has forced at least 15 turnovers in a game 29 times this season.
- Allen scored 26 points to lead Florida to a 81-66 home victory over the Gamecocks on Feb. 21 and Thornwell had 20 to lead South Carolina to a 57-53 victory over the visiting Gators on Jan. 18.
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