South Carolina forward Maik Kotsar drives against Florida forward Kevarrius Hayes during the first half Sunday of the East Regional championship game of the NCAA Tournament in New York. [Frank Franklin II/Associated Press]

Florida's NCAA Tournament journey comes to an end

By Kevin Brockway Staff writer
Sunday, March 26, 2017 8:50 PM

NEW YORK — It was there, in front of them. With 20 minutes to play Sunday, Florida was in position to make its sixth trip to the Final Four in school history.

But untimely fouls, the inability to defend the post and critical turnovers down the stretch proved too much for the Gators to overcome in a 77-70 loss to South Carolina in the Elite Eight before 20,047 at Madison Square Garden.

Instead of Florida, South Carolina (26-10) will represent the SEC next week in the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz. The Gamecocks proved to be the more physical team in the first NCAA Tournament matchup between SEC teams since 1986. South Carolina outscored Florida 42-28 in the paint and got to the free-throw line 31 times, compared to 14 trips for Florida (27-9). As a result, South Carolina finished the season 2-1 against Florida and won the game with the highest stakes.

Florida led 40-33 at halftime, but couldn’t sustain its early momentum. South Carolina shot 52.2 percent from the field in the second half and 49.1 percent for the game. Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, was too tough for the Gators to stop, leading four South Carolina scorers in double figures with 26 points. Thornwell earned East Regional most outstanding player honors.

“For whatever reason, in the second half, we couldn’t match that same defensive intensity,” Florida coach Mike White said.

Still, after blowing a seven-point halftime lead, Florida had a chance to win the game in the final three minutes. The Gators took a brief 63-61 lead when a steal from senior forward Justin Leon led to a breakaway layup for Chris Chiozza, and the score was knotted at 63 when South Carolina forward Chris Silva had a putback with 3 minutes remaining.

But Florida closed the game going 3-of-9 from the floor with three turnovers. A critical one came with 1:58 remaining, when, with Florida down 65-63, Thornwell stole a pass from point guard Kasey Hill and set up South Carolina center Malik Kotsar for a short jumper that put the Gamecocks up 67-63.

Sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen cut South Carolina’s lead to 70-68 on a three-point play with 53 seconds left, drawing Thornwell’s fourth foul. South Carolina then made a long inbounds pass downcourt to senior guard Duane Notice, who appeared to shuffle his feet as he dribbled away from the basket. Chiozza defended Notice on the play and was called for a foul on a reach in. White said he didn’t want the Gators to foul on the play, and Chiozza questioned how much contact he made with him as well.

“They do a good job selling calls,” Chiozza said.

Notice made both free throws to put South Carolina up 72-68. Junior forward Devin Robinson then had a turnover when he was stripped by Thornwell. After rallying from down five points in overtime against Wisconsin, there was no miracle comeback in the cards this time. Down 73-68, Allen missed a short open jumper in the lane, slamming his hand on the court in frustration. Chiozza also had a late turnover.

“The last two minutes they were up, we knew they didn’t want to foul,” Chiozza said. “We knew they didn’t want to foul so we just tried to get to the hole and get some fouls called, get some easy layups. But when they are a physical team and they are allowed to hand check you and bump you and have three guys swing at you when you’re in the air, and there’s no fouls called, there’s nothing you can do about that.”

Leon led three UF scorers in double figures with 18 points. Allen added 13 points and Hill had 11 points and five assists. But after going 7-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half to build its 40-33 halftime lead, Florida went cold in the second half, going 0 of 14 from beyond the arc.

Another second-half issue for the Gators were fouls. Florida was whistled for seven fouls in the first 5:07 of the second half, which allowed South Carolina to get in the bonus for the final 14:53. The Gamecocks took advantage by consistently attacking the basket. South Carolina went to the free-throw line 28 times in the second half, making 20.

“We felt like a lot of little things were becoming a little more touchy, you put a hand on someone and there was a whistle,” Florida center Kevarrius Hayes said. “We tried to continue to pressure them but keep the hands off.”

South Carolina also exerted its will on the glass, outrebounding Florida 34-31 to keep critical offensive possessions alive.

“It was a little frustrating,” said Hayes, who had 8 points and 8 rebounds. “Even if you did box out your man, then somebody else could come in and get rebounds. Even some things, enduring through, some things that you kind of relax for a moment and they have five of them rebounding. That’s something we didn’t handle well.”

For as well as Florida shot the ball in the first half, South Carolina was able to hang around by forcing 11 first-half turnovers. For the game, the Gamecocks scored 20 points off 16 Florida turnovers.

“We had a bunch of turnovers, we were sped up, we had a lack of communication,” White said. “They had — we had live ball turnovers that led to transition for them.”

Florida ended its second season under White at 27-9 with its ninth Elite Eight trip in school history. It was a six-game improvement from White’s first season at the helm, which ended in the NIT quarterfinals.

“I’m really, really proud of our guys for putting Florida basketball back in the right direction,” White said.

— Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

SOUTH CAROLINA 77, FLORIDA 70

SOUTH CAROLINA (26-10)

Kotsar 6-10 0-2 12, Silva 2-5 9-12 13, Thornwell 8-13 9-10 26, Notice 2-9 2-4 6, Dozier 7-11 3-3 17, Keita 0-0 0-0 0, McKie 1-3 0-0 3, Gravett 0-0 0-0 0, Felder 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 26-53 23-31 77.

LORIDA (27-9)

Robinson 1-5 2-2 5, Leon 7-15 1-1 18, Hayes 3-4 2-2 8, Hill 4-7 3-4 11, Allen 4-12 3-3 13, Stone 1-2 0-0 2, Gak 0-1 0-0 0, Chiozza 3-10 2-2 9, Barry 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 25-60 13-14 70.

Halftime_Florida 40-33. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 2-10 (McKie 1-1, Thornwell 1-4, Felder 0-1, Notice 0-2, Dozier 0-2), Florida 7-26 (Leon 3-9, Allen 2-8, Robinson 1-3, Chiozza 1-3, Stone 0-1, Barry 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_South Carolina 31 (Silva 9), Florida 24 (Hayes 8). Assists_South Carolina 7 (Notice 3), Florida 11 (Hill 5). Total Fouls_South Carolina 17, Florida 21.




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