Gamecocks’ magical march zapped by Zags; Heels win

uschoops-zagsA season that few South Carolina Gamecocks fans will ever forget came to an end Saturday evening in the desert, as the men’s basketball team lost a thrilling 77-73 matchup with Gonzaga (37-1) in the NCAA National Semifinals.

The Gamecocks battled back from a double-digit deficit in the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium but could not hold off the No. 1 seeded Bulldogs, who will face North Carolina for the national championship on Monday. The tar Heels defeated Oregon 77-76.

With the loss, South Carolina ends the 2016-17 season with a program-record 26 wins and an overall record of 26-11. PJ Dozier led the team in scoring with 17 points. Chris Silva battled Gonzaga’s immense frontcourt and finished with 13 points, a career-high 13 rebounds and three blocks.

The Gamecocks were the pursuer for most of the first half, as the Bulldogs were efficient on offense, especially on the interior. A 3-pointer from Dozier gave South Carolina a 10-8 lead five minutes in, but Gonzaga responded with a 12-4 run over the next three minutes to take a two-possession lead with 12 minutes to go. South Carolina leaned on a balanced offense early to keep pace, with six different players scoring for the team in the opening 10 minutes.

South Carolina matched five-point scoring bursts from Gonzaga to hang close at 26-all and 31-all, thanks in large part to the efforts of Justin McKie and Silva. McKie provided vital scoring for the team off the bench, hitting a pair of 3-pointers in a span of two minutes, with the second tying the score at 31 with 5:13 to play. The senior had a team-high eight points in the period. Silva had a pair of highlight-reel blocks to go with seven points and four rebounds in the half.

A 7-0 run in the final two minutes of the half for the Bulldogs sent them into the break with their biggest lead of the game to that point, 45-36. Gonzaga was red-hot offensively, shooting over 57 percent from the field in the opening frame, led by 12 points for Nigel Williams-Goss. The Bulldogs were especially deadly from deep down the stretch, hitting all three 3-point attempts in the final six minutes to fuel the late run. South Carolina shot just 37 percent as a team, but had five different players contribute at least five points.

Williams-Goss would be the heart of the Gonzaga offense early and often in the second half, scoring 11 of the team’s first 20 points out of the break and driving the lead up to 65-51 with 11 minutes to go.

As it had been all tournament long, though, no lead was safe from the South Carolina Gamecocks. After an and-1 conversion from Williams-Goss for the largest lead of the game, 65-51, Carolina used the next four minutes to ignite the Garnet and Black faithful. Silva started the flurry with an and-1 of his own, and the Gamecocks hit six straight field goals to tie it up at 65 with 7:42 left to play.

The run topped out at 16-0 after a pair of Rakym Felder free throws made it 67-65 Gamecocks, giving the team its first lead since the 15:27 mark of the first half. Gonzaga snapped a four-minute scoring drought with back-to-back baskets to take back the lead, but it was a brand-new game with five minutes to play and the world watching.

The Bulldogs moved away from the perimeter late in the game, turning inside to 7-foot-1-inch senior Przemek Karnowski to grab back momentum. The big man converted on back-to-back possessions to push Gonzaga ahead at the final media timeout, 72-67 with 3:54 on the clock.

The two teams fought tooth and nail for every possession in the final four minutes, but both sides went cold offensively. A jump shot from Dozier and a split trip at the free throw line for Silva was Carolina’s only points over a two minute span. The Gamecock defense put them in position, however, to tie the game up with the ball and a three-point deficit with 15 seconds left and the score 75-72 in Gonzaga’s favor.

The Bulldogs opted to foul Sindarius Thornwell away from the basket, putting him on the line for two shots with 3.5 seconds left. After hitting the first, he hit the second off the back of the iron and Gonzaga snagged it and was fouled with 2.2 still on the clock with a 75-73 advantage. A pair of made free throws on the other end sealed the win for the Bulldogs.

Photo courtesy of USC Athletics

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