The South Carolina Gamecocks are going to the sweet 16.
This is not a drill. This is actually happening.
A 65-point second half — the highest scoring second half in program history — helped South Carolina overcome a seven-point halftime deficit to upset the No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils 88-81 Sunday night.
Typing that sentence alone is enough to make this alum misty eyed. Never in my wildest dreams would I see myself sitting in my bedroom watching South Carolina — a proverbial college basketball black hole — beat what might be the most storied program of the last 30 years.
Duke is synonymous with college basketball. Their success might transcend the sport. Walk up to any rando in the street and ask them what they know about Duke University. There’s a good chance the first response off the top of their head has something to do with college basketball.
There was a huge disparity between the clout of these programs within the world of college basketball coming into the game, and if logic followed properly South Carolina wasn’t supposed to win. The Gamecocks were a 6.5 point dog, and this Duke team wasn’t supposed to be the one that imploded in the first weekend.
This iteration of Duke basketball has been called by a number of pundits and media members as the most talented team Mike Krzyzewski had ever assembled. They had the No. 1 recruiting class coming into the season, armed with three of the ten best freshman in the country and one projected top-5 NBA draft pick.
Duke was voted No. 1 in the preseason polls, and even after some bumps in the road involving Grayson Allen tripping opponents or losing to NC State and Syracuse in bizarre games — Duke still found a way to win four games in four days to capture the ACC Tournament championship.
Without diving deep into Duke’s season too much, the Blue Devils looked like a lock for the Final Four or even a National Championship. According to ESPN, 7.3 million brackets in their tournament challenge had Duke in the final four. A number of experts also had Duke in the final four or even winning it all.
Heck, even here at SB Nation there were strong opinions about Duke winning the whole thing — and for the first 22 minutes of Sunday’s game it seemed like Duke was going to make a whole lot of people look really smart.
The first half was nothing new for Gamecock fans. South Carolina struggled offensively -- shooting right near the Mendoza line while Duke was hitting contested three’s and getting to the line with ease.
However, true to form South Carolina’s defense kept Duke from really blowing the doors off the first half. Duke stud Luke Kennard was held scoreless, while other Blue Chippers like Jason Tatum and Harry Giles were bottled up significantly.
From a talent standpoint, Duke was playing with five NBA-caliber players and South Carolina was playing with maybe one and a half. And yet, the Gamecocks were still hanging tough going into the final 20 minutes.
The momentum took a clear turn when Duane Notice drew a three-point play against Kennard at the 18:08 mark that cut the deficit to five points. Even as Allen would hit a three for Duke two possessions later to make it 38-32 — momentum and a fiery home crowd were starting to get behind South Carolina.
A Sindarius Thornwell three followed by two thunderous dunks by Chris Silva gave South Carolina the lead with 15:24 to play, and the next four minutes saw the lead change three times before Rakym Felder hit a deep three to give SC a 52-48 lead.
Frank Jackson would respond with a three on the other end of the floor, but Silva would help reclaim the momentum with a three-point play to make it 55-51. Notice followed with five straight points to bring South Carolina ahead 60-53, and from that point the Gamecocks never looked back.
The cherry on the wonderful cake that was Sunday night was Thornwell breaking the Duke press by heaving a full court pass to Justin McKie for a flush with under a minute to play. I can’t put how sweet this moment was into words, so just watch it here:
Long pass from Thornwell to McKie for the easy 2. pic.twitter.com/z01Yb8zt1J— LeadingNCAA ™ (@LeadingNCAA) March 20, 2017
The whole play is such poetry. Thornwell — the blue chipper who’s brought South Carolina to the point it is now — makes an amazing read down the court to find McKie, who honored his dad’s legacy with a finish worthy of his dad’s jersey hanging in the rafters.
Taking everything into consideration, this is easily the best win in the history of South Carolina’s basketball program. I’m not sure what a close second is. Maybe the Kentucky upset in 2010, but as of right now everything that’s happened in the history of South Carolina basketball seems irrelevant.
We’re living in history folks. Drink in its sweet nectar. For three hours on March 19, 2016 the South Carolina Gamecocks were America’s team. The only people pulling for Duke outside of Duke fans were gamblers, Clemson fans, Florida-Georgia Line, Lena Dunham and the executives at TLC.
As an alum who covered Frank Martin’s first year on campus and Sindarious Thornwell’s freshman year with student media — it was one of the more surreal experiences of my life watching the pair put it all together against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. I’m sure other fans had similar personal moments watching the game, like this thoughtful reaction from The Ringer’s Michael Baumann.
This is the kind of moment you’ll be telling your grand kids about when you’re bouncing them up and down on your knee. The kind of moment you’ll share a beer over with your roommates from freshman year at a reunion 20 years down the road.
As a fan, this is we’ve been waiting over 40 years for. And we got it on the biggest possible stage against the biggest possible opponent. There’s still work to do Friday against Baylor, but for now we can relish in the fact the Gamecocks are in the freaking Sweet 16.
Forever to thee, y’all.