The SEC is the conference that has produced basketball superstars such as “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Shaquille O’Neil, Charles Barkley, Anthony Davis, and John Wall. Those players have come from great programs such as Kentucky, Florida, and LSU.
This year, despite its rich tradition, the conference received only five NCAA tournament bids. But three of those teams are still alive in the Elite Eight: Florida, South Carolina, and powerhouse Kentucky, the regular season and SEC tournament champ.
The No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks will take on the No. 4 Florida Gators in the Elite Eight East Regional final at Madison Square Garden Sunday, March 26, at 2:20 p.m. ET.
This contest will no doubt be a defensive brawl, as the familiar foes will be facing off for the third time this season. They split the first two meetings, with each winning on their home court.
South Carolina and coach Frank Martin have put on a defensive clinic thus far in the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks held Duke to 41.5% shooting from the field and Baylor to just 50 points and 30% shooting. Defensive intensity is their strength and will be the focus of their game plan against Florida.
Guard Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina’s senior leader, must continue to perform well, along with big-time contributors Chris Silva, PJ Dozier, and Duane Notice.
Notice spoke about the Gamecocks finally getting the respect they deserve. “The amount of support that we are getting from fans from around the county is great,” said Notice. “It’s gratifying to see that they are finally starting to realize and recognize how hard we play and how hard we practice. It’s a testament to how hard we work.”
He continued to talk about the trip to the Elite Eight: “We are so hungry. We got a taste of winning in the tournament, and we want to continue winning.”
Florida will present the Gamecocks with a tough opponent after the Gators’ historic win over Wisconsin. Florida had a 12-point lead late in the second half, but the Badgers clawed their way back to tie the game at the end of regulation on a desperate three-point shot. Chris Chiozza, the Gators’ lightning-quick guard, came through in the clutch with a running three at the buzzer in overtime to win the game 84–83.
KeVaughn Allen was also extraordinary against Wisconsin. Happy that his mom was on hand watching him play at the Garden, he scored a career-high 35 points in the overtime win over the Badgers. “It felt great,” said Allen. “I am proud that I had the opportunity to play here in front of her.”
Florida will have to stop South Carolina from playing its best basketball of the season in order to advance to the Final Four. The Gators’ guards will need to match up with and neutralize Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year.
Florida will also need to win the battle of the boards, with Kevarrius Hayes and Devin Robinson stepping up to control the paint.
Hayes is thrilled to move on to the Elite Eight. “This is what we have worked for all year,” he said. “It’s what we put our heart and soul into.” Hayes said Florida is simply going to look back and replicate what worked in the past to beat South Carolina.
A trip to the Final Four in Phoenix—and SEC pride—will be on the line Sunday afternoon in New York City.
Photographs by (from top): Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Notice); Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Allen)