COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Sindarius Thornwell knew South Carolina fans would be excited about the team’s Sweet 16 appearance. The response since he has been on campus, though, surprised even him.
As Thornwell walked to the student union after class, he couldn’t take more than a couple of steps without students swarming him for selfies or asking for some tidbit about the win against Duke on Sunday.
“We’re trying to embrace the moment,” Thornwell said Tuesday. “But that was wild.”
Everyone on campus, around Columbia and even the state seem to be savoring every minute. It’s understandable, the Gamecocks haven’t been in the Sweet 16 since 1973.
It’s been a wild ride for the Gamecocks (24-10), who some wondered if they’d even get invited to the NCAA Tournament let alone produce one of the signature moments so far with their 88-81 win over the second-seeded Blue Devi ls in the East Region.
Next up is third seeded Baylor (27-7) on Friday night at Madison Square Garden for the chance to advance.
Coach Frank Martin said he’s gotten more than 1,100 text messages about Sunday night’s win and two or three from people wondering, “So I guess you’re not going to respond?” he joked.
“That’s a good problem to have,” he said.
South Carolina is gaining the attention Gamecock fans have recently showered on the football, baseball or women’s basketball programs.
Steve Spurrier, featuring NFL standouts like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney , receiver Alshon Jeffrey and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, won the Southeastern Conference East Division in 2010 and had three straight 11-2 seasons from 2011-13.
Baseball won back-to-back College World Series under now athletic director Ray Tanner in 2010 and 2011. Thousands turned out for victory parades to the Statehouse when the team returned home.
Most recently, South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, led by new U.S. women’s national team coach Dawn Staley, has gained much of the attention with four straight SEC regular season titles. The Gamecocks have led the women’s game in attendance the past three seasons.
Now, men’s basketball is getting some love.
“We’re happy to be part of that,” sophomore point guard P.J. Dozier said.
There was a time when men’s basketball led the way at South Carolina when New York City native Frank McGuire turned a sleepy program into a national power with a pipeline of NYC kids like John Roche, Tom Owens, Bobby Cremins, Brian Winters and Mike Dunleavy Sr.
McGuire led the Gamecocks to the NCAA round of 16 three straight seasons from 1971-73 – there were just 25 schools involved – and his team was considered the cream of the crop in South Carolina athletic circles.
But McGuire’s touch ran out in the mid-1970s and the Gamecocks have struggled for an identity for more than 40 years.
South Carolina won its only Southeastern Conference crown in 1997, but lost in the NCAAs as a No. 2 seed. The Gamecocks returned to the tournament the next season, that time falling as a No. 3 seed.
The Gamecocks high-water mark until now may be the consecutive NIT crowns won by coach Dave Odom in 2005 and 2006.
Martin and these Gamecocks are out to add another level of success to the program.
The fifth-year coach said that being around Spurrier – “Steve calls me every day,” Martin said – Tanner and Staley make him a better leader and give him examples of building winning cultures.
“I’m a big believer in winning leads to winning,” he said.
An emotional Martin, overcome by his team’s Duke win, told the players in the locker room, “Let’s go win this thing.”
He said Tuesday he wanted his players to know that by beating Duke, they proved they’re good enough to play with anyone left in the field.
Thornwell heard that over and over from friends, family and hundreds of new acquaintances he’s made the past 48 hours.
“We’re just having fun,” he said, “enjoying the game, enjoying every moment.”