Florida point guard Kasey Hill scores during the first half of the Gators' 81-66 win against South Carolina Tuesday, February 21, 2017 at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, Fla.
NEW YORK — When the NCAA Tournament East Region bracket was drawn up two weeks ago, many expected a clash between ACC and Big East powers Duke and Villanova to determine a trip to the Final Four.
Who knew the SEC would steal the show? The Elite Eight matchup between fourth-seed Florida and seventh-seed South Carolina today will feature a pair of defensive-minded programs in the same conference that are familiar with one another.
South Carolina won the first meeting between the two schools this season on Jan. 18, 57-53, holding Florida to 0 of 17 from 3-point range and snapping UF’s string of 850 straight games with at least one 3-pointer. The Gators got payback Feb. 21, beating South Carolina 81-66 at the O’Connell Center by going 9 of 19 from beyond the 3-point arc.
There will be no secrets. Florida knows South Carolina’s weaknesses. South Carolina knows Florida’s deficiencies.
“It’s an advantage for both of us,” Florida coach Mike White said. “I don’t think we have an advantage over South Carolina in this preparation at all.”
It’s the first time that two SEC schools have squared off in an NCAA Tournament matchup since LSU beat Kentucky 59-57 in a 1986 Elite Eight matchup. Don’t be surprised if Florida and South Carolina post a similar score today. South Carolina ranks second in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com’s college basketball analytics ratings. Florida ranks fourth.
“It’s going to be a grind-out game,” South Carolina senior guard Duane Notice said. “Florida is a great defensive team and so are we.”
But Florida was able to solve South Carolina’s smothering defense in its win over the Gamecocks in February through better shooting and better ball movement. The Gators had 13 assists on their 25 baskets and shot 49 percent from the floor.
“We were just more patient,” Florida junior point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We were also at home, so they didn’t have that homecourt advantage, when the crowd gets loud, when they get a block or a steal or something. When we got in the paint we didn’t try to force it up on three guys. We jump stopped and we passed to the open man.”
Said Notice: “The second game, we did a poor job running them off the 3-point line. They made like nine 3s in that game. That’s just too many points given up. We just have to make sure we do a job of limiting them in transition and getting them off the 3-point line.”
South Carolina was going through some defensive issues during a late February stretch in which it gave up 81 points to Florida and 83 points in a home loss to Arkansas. But in its three NCAA Tournament wins, South Carolina is giving up just an average of 64 points per game.
“We started getting right again in the game at Florida,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “We still weren’t there, but that’s the game we started getting right again, where we — I thought we were starting to do things the right way again.”
Notice said the renewed defensive vigor in March was simply a case of South Carolina having new life.
“Once we saw our names on Selection Sunday, we knew the season wasn’t over,” Notice said. “Every game from then, we played like it’s our last game. That kind of gave us motivation to get back what we were doing the right way.”
Offensively, South Carolina has found a groove in the NCAA Tournament as well. The Gamecocks are averaging 83.7 points in their three tournament wins, shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent (23-66) from 3-point range. Five different South Carolina players are averaging double-figures in scoring in tourney play
“Offensively, they seem to be playing with a lot more confidence,” White said.
The key for Florida begins with stopping South Carolina senior guard and SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has been a thorn in UF’s side, averaging 21.5 points in two meetings against the Gators. At 6-foot-5 and 211 pounds, Thornwell is a matchup problem for UF’s guards because of his physicality.
“He’s just a competitive player,” Florida senior point guard Kasey Hill said. “He really wants to win. He’ll do whatever it takes for them.”
Chiozza said it will be important to limit Thornwell’s touches.
“We know he’s going to get his,” Chiozza said. “But we just have to try to not let him get everybody else going as well, try to put some size and length on him and make it tough for him to get his shots off … just try to be physical with him and limit the ways he can affect the game.”
Florida is coming off an emotional 84-83 overtime win over Wisconsin, won on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Chiozza that will be talked about and replayed for decades. But Hill said it’s important for the Gators to put the dramatic win behind them and channel their focus toward the Gamecocks.
“I’m over last night,” Hill said. “We have to be. If we go into this game thinking about last night we’ll lose and our focus will not be on the game. We don’t need to be in that place right now. We need to be worried about South Carolina, trying to get this win.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.
G;KeVaughn Allen;6-2;So.;14.1 ppg; 2.4 rpg
G;Kasey Hill;6-1; Sr.;9.7 ppg;4.5 apg
F;Devin Robinson;6-8; Jr.;11.3 ppg;6.3 rpg
F;Justin Leon;6-8; RSr.;7.1 ppg;4.0 rpg
C;Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; So.;6.1 ppg;4.3 rpg
G;Sindarius Thornwell; 6-5;Sr.;21.4 ppg;7.2 rpg
G;Duane Notice; 6-2;Sr.;8.1 ppg;2.8 rpg
G;P.J. Dozier;6-6; So.;13.7 ppg;4.7 rpg
F;Chris Silva;6-9;So.;10.1 ppg;5.8 rpg
F;Malik Kotsar;6-10;Fr.;5.7 ppg;4.9 rpg
Notes: Florida is 5-3 all-time in Elite Eight games. … Florida is 44-24 all-time against South Carolina and 1-2 against the Gamecocks under Mike White. … Florida senior forward Canyon Barry is averaging 11.6 ppg off the bench and has led UF in scoring eight times this season. … Florida junior point guard Chris Chiozza’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 was UF’s first winning shot at the buzzer since Chandler Parsons hit a 3 at the buzzer to beat South Carolina on Jan. 23, 2010. … South Carolina senior guard Duane Notice has made a team-high 67 3-pointers this season, while sophomore guard P.J. Dozier has a team-best 98 assists.
— Kevin Brockway
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