Sindarius Thornwell illness was side story in USC’s 2017 Final Four loss. What if ...

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It’s a question that South Carolina men’s basketball fans bring up from time to time. And it’s something that Duane Notice didn’t hesitate to answer about the team’s 2017 Final Four run.

“What if Sindarius Thornwell wasn’t sick before the Final Four game against Gonzaga?”

“I think it is hard to play the what-if game in sports, but I’m sure we believe if he was completely healthy, we would have won,” Notice, a senior on the 2017 team, told The State this week. “Even with him not at full strength, we still had a chance, but we didn’t have things go our way.”

The Gamecocks lost to Gonzaga, 77-73, in the program’s first and only Final Four trip in 2017. They had reeled off four wins in March Madness — generating a euphoric feeling around a program that had not won a single NCAA Tournament game since the 1970s.

It’s hard to say if Thornwell, the team’s star and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, was truly at full strength despite his comments otherwise.

“Yeah, I was at 100 percent. I think the first half I was a little fatigued a little bit, but that’s still not an excuse for anything. I was fine. I was fine the whole game,” Thornwell said after the game.

Gamecocks coach Frank Martin second-guessed himself some after the loss. Should he have rested Thornwell early in the contest? It’s hard to take out a guy like Thornwell, who played a game-high 37 minutes, on such a big stage.

“He’s a warrior and he’s the kind of guy as a coach you struggle to take out of games,” Martin said.

Sindarius Thornwell plays for South Carolina during the Gamecocks’ Final Four game against Gonzaga on April 1, 2017.
Sindarius Thornwell plays for South Carolina during the Gamecocks’ Final Four game against Gonzaga on April 1, 2017.

How sick was Sindarius?

Justin McKie, another senior on the Final Four team, remembers Thornwell not feeling great before the team left for Phoenix, the site of that year’s Final Four.

Martin said Thornwell “had a little body temperature last night when we landed. And he was a little better this morning. But I kind of told our trainer, just feed him fluids, do what doctors do and let him rest rather than stress him right now.”

Thornwell missed the team’s shoot-around held on Thursday, March 30, 2017, but attended the open practice and media session the following day.

“He’s our most intelligent player,” Martin added in the press conference that Thursday, two days before the Gonzaga game. “And I don’t mean to say that demeaning the other guys. He understands basketball at a high, high level, he doesn’t need to be on the practice court to understand what we’re doing.”

Notice said Thornwell stayed in his hotel room a lot during the trip and was quieter than normal.

“I don’t know what he was sick with, but I remember it was a pretty big deal,” Notice said.

The State was unable to reach Thornwell for additional comment for this story. He is playing Russia for the BC Avtodor Saratov.

He told reporters during the Friday media interviews of Final Four week that he was fine and it was mainly “headaches and fevers.”

Thornwell went on to score 15 points in the Final Four game, the first time he was held under 20 in the NCAA Tournament. He was just 4-of-12 shooting and didn’t score until midway through the first half.

Still, the Gamecocks kept within striking distance and rallied from 11 points down in the second half to take a 67-65 lead on Rakym Felder’s basket with 7:06 left. The Gamecocks trailed 75-72 with 1:35 left and had several chances to tie the game.

After Gonzaga missed a shot with 16 seconds left, USC had another chance to tie, but Thornwell was fouled before the team could get a look at a 3-pointer. He made the first free throw and missed the second on purpose but the Zags’ Killian Tillie got the rebound.

PJ Dozier had a team-high 17 points for the Gamecocks that day. Chris Silva had 13, Notice had 10 and McKie scored eight points.

“I am the type of person that doesn’t deal in what-ifs,” McKie said. “If Sindarius is healthy then maybe PJ doesn’t have a big game and I don’t have a big first half. I just try to be thankful for what was and what did happen.”

Sindarius Thornwell looks to make a play in the Final Four. The University of South Carolina took on Gonzaga in the Final Four round of 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Glendale, Ariz. Saturday, April 1, 2017. This was the first time South Carolina’s basketball team played in the Final Four in program history. South Carolina fell to Gonzaga 73-77.

The Gamecocks’ journey to Phoenix

Both McKie and Notice reflected on the postseason run this week. The two say that magical season still comes up in a group chat with members of the Final Four team. Some in that group chat — including Thornwell, PJ Dozier and Chris Silva — are still playing professionally. Notice plays in the Canadian Basketball League and is involved in broadcasting.

McKie and Notice kept plenty of memorabilia from that postseason, including chairs from the Final Four, pieces of the court and net from the regional championship.

For Notice, a Canadian, he wasn’t used to March Madness and the pageantry that went along with it. And for McKie, it was special because he played his high school basketball at nearby Irmo and his father BJ was a Gamecock great that was part of the team’s 1997 SEC regular-season championship and two NCAA Tournament teams.

The run to the Final Four actually started the year before when the Gamecocks were snubbed in their NCAA Tournament bid despite a 25-9 record. That motivated South Carolina, and the Gamecocks went 21-10 in the 2016-17 regular season and finished third in the SEC.

South Carolina actually entered the tournament on a downward trend, losing five of its final seven games. McKie said Martin gave the team a few days off before the NCAAs after the Gamecocks lost their opener at the SEC Tournament.

“We got to be college kids for those three or four days,” McKie said. “... Then, right before we got back to practice, the seniors talked about how we haven’t been to the tournament and we wanted to make it a special ride. And that’s what we did.”

The Gamecocks a No. 7 seed assigned to Greenville for the first two rounds.

USC defeated Marquette in the first round and then knocked off powerhouse Duke, which featured future NBA star Jayson Tatum. South Carolina followed that with a trip to New York for the East Regional and defeated Baylor and Florida, a team USC lost to a little over a month earlier, to punch its ticket to the Final Four.

Notice sealed the Florida game with his first dunk of the season with 11 seconds left.

“That was the running joke with my teammates, that I don’t dunk anymore, so that was kind of cool,” Notice said. “To have it be in Madison Square Garden and my mom had flown down. It was cool.”

After the win, the team arrived back in Columbia that night in front of a large crowd at Colonial Life Arena.

“I walked out with the trophy first and it was surreal,” said McKie, who is now a college basketball referee. “We got so much love in Madison Square Garden. I didn’t know how many people would be out there. Felt like Gamecock Nation was in New York. We clearly had the most vocal fans there.

“... It was just a beautiful time with fond memories.”

South Carolina Gamecocks senior guards Justin McKie (20), Duane Notice (10) and Sindarius Thornwell (0) celebrate with the NCAA regional trophy after beating Florida in New York.
South Carolina Gamecocks senior guards Justin McKie (20), Duane Notice (10) and Sindarius Thornwell (0) celebrate with the NCAA regional trophy after beating Florida in New York.