South Carolina defeats Florida for first Final Four bid


NEW YORK -- South Carolina is headed to the Final Four after knocking off Florida 77-70 in the East Regional final on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) will face Gonzaga on Saturday in the national semifinal. It's the third time in the last four years that a seventh seed is headed to the Final Four.

Sindaruius Thornwell, the Most Outstanding Player in the East Regional, led South Carolina with a game-high 26 points, going 8 of 13 and 9 of 10 from the line. PJ Dozier had 17 points, Chris Silva scored 13 points and Maik Kotsar added 12 points for the Gamecocks, who trailed by seven points at the break.

Justin Leon paced fourth-seeded Florida (27-9) with 18 points and KeVaughn Allen had 13 points.

The Gators relied on the 3-pointer in the first half, but failed to make any of their 14 from long range in the second half. Florida missed all 17 of its 3-pointers the first time the two teams played each other, a 57-53 Gamecocks win on Jan. 18.

South Carolina ranks eighth in 3-point field goal percentage defense, just a shade under 30 percent.

After three straight free throws from South Carolina made it 70-65, a conventional three-point play by Allen cut the lead to 70-68 with 53 seconds left, but that would be the closest Florida would get as the Gamecocks scored the final three points of the game on free throw from Thornwell and dunk by Duane Notice.

The score was tied six times in the span of just under six minutes before Thornwell's two free throws with 2:24 left put the Gamecocks up 65-63 and a mid-range jumper from Kotsar pushed the lead to 67-63 with 1:55 remaining.

A tip-in from Kotsar provided the Gamecocks with their first lead of the second half at 49-48 with 11:28 to play. Florida went 4:32 without a basket.

South Carolina forced 11 turnovers, receiving 13 points from the miscues, but had trouble defending the perimeter. The Gators were 7-of-12 from beyond the arc and led at the break, 40-33

There were nine lead changes and the score was tied four times before the Gators got some separation with a 9-2 run to pull ahead 38-30.

Four straight 3-pointers gave Florida a 32-28 lead with 3:01 left in the half.

Thornwell scored 15 points in the half, going 6-of-8 from the floor.

NOTES: This is the first meeting between two Southeastern Conference schools in a regional final since Kentucky and LSU in 1986. ... Florida and South Carolina split their two regular season games. The Gators won 81-66 in Gainesville and the Gamecocks took a 57-53 decision in Columbia. ... Florida is the last Division 1 team to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament titles (2006, 2007). ... South Carolina forced 16 turnovers against Baylor in the semifinal on Friday, marking the 29th time this season an opponent has had at least 15 miscues against the Gamecocks. ... The Gators were making their ninth Elite Eight appearance, all of which have come since 1994. ... This was the first neutral site contest between South Carolina and Florida since the 2006 SEC Tournament championship game in Nashville.