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South Carolina 77, Florida 70: Gators succumb to swarming Gamecocks in Elite Eight

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Florida had a lead, but Carolina choked down and suffocated the Gators late.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-South Carolina vs Florida Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators had a seven-point lead over the South Carolina Gamecocks at halftime on Sunday in Madison Square Garden.

But just like when the Gators gave up a halftime lead of the same size in Columbia earlier this year, Florida could not make shots down the stretch against a Gamecocks defense that wrapped itself around the throat, and eventually lay limp on the canvas, loser of a 77-70 game that was as much prize fight as shooting contest.

Sindarius Thornwell continued an amazing NCAA Tournament by scoring 26 points to lead all scorers, and was joined in double figures by PJ Dozier (17 points), Maik Kotsar (13 points), and Duane Notice (12 points). Florida simply couldn’t keep up with Carolina’s starters, who scored 74 of the Gamecocks’ points, despite fine games from Justin Leon (18 points, seven rebounds) and Kasey Hill (11 points, five assists, three steals ... and five turnovers) in their final games in Gators colors.

Those performances looked like they might send Florida to the Final Four, for a time. The Gators started slowly in the first half, trailing by up to four points as 12 turnovers before the break short-circuited much of the Gators’ offense, but seven threes, including three by Justin Leon, helped Florida build a lead that swelled to seven points at intermission.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game would be played at South Carolina’s preferred rhythm, with the Gamecocks feeding Kotsar and Silva in the paint and Thornwell bullying his way to the tin time and again. And a storm of foul calls against Florida didn’t help: The Gamecocks would be in the double bonus early in the second half, thanks partly to a single defensive possession that yielded five fouls on the Gators, and paraded to the foul line, knocking down most of their 23 free throws on the day after intermission.

And Florida couldn’t buy a bucket with a billion dollars after the half. The Gators missed every three they took in the second half — and took 14 of them, failing to capitalize on the tighter whistle by repeatedly driving to the basket.

In a building where every whistle for and bucket by the team in black was cheered lustily by a clearly pro-Carolina crowd, those misses felt like massive missed opportunities.

And because of them, Florida’s March Madness run is done.