Down 38-36 to Vanderbilt with 15 minutes remaining, South Carolina's basketball team seemed to be hurtling toward a predetermined fate. Then Sindarius Thornwell stepped in to lead the Gamecocks to a 65-59 triumph in Colonial Life Arena.
South Carolina led 28-27 after a back-and-forth first half. This wasn't unusual, as the Gamecocks have hung around at least to halftime in virtually every home game this season. But like so many contests this season, South Carolina's grip on the game started slipping away early in the second half. Vanderbilt looked like a different team than the one that had been pushed around by the Gamecocks in the first half, and it was beginning to show on the scoreboard.
Vanderbilt took its first lead two and a half minutes into the second half, and the feeling of dread began to sink in. It was the same script of the LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn games, playing itself out yet again to the disgust of the season-ticket holders.
But with the Commodores up 38-36, something happened. Sindarius Thornwell happened. The freshman swingman, widely proclaimed the cornerstone to South Carolina's transformation under Frank Martin, led South Carolina back from the brink. First, he drained two free throws to tie the game. Then, he crossed up his man at the top of the arc, drove inside, gathered the defense's attention, and dished back out to the wing, where Duane Notice was ready to launch a trey. 41-38, South Carolina.
Vanderbilt answered with a jumper to shave the lead to one, but Thornwell wasn't done. He turned it over on South Carolina's next possession, but chased down Vanderbilt forward Rod Odom for a tremendous rundown block against the backboard. It was called a foul, but Odom missed both free throws, and Thornwell had re-invigorated the Gamecock crowd.
By the time he banged in a three from the left wing with a man in his face, the freshman had already set in motion a 22-7 run that would put South Carolina in position to coast to the finish. It was just another instance of Thornwell keeping his cool despite the way the season - and many of its games - has gone.
"Sindarius has kind of led the charge when it comes to that," Martin said. "He hasn't allowed outcomes of games to impact how he prepares and how he grows as a player, and that's allowed the other guys on the team to have someone to follow. And for him to be doing that this early in his career, it's fun to coach."
Thornwell's 19-point, six-rebound, six-assist night probably wasn't his best statistically as a Gamecock, but it was enough to leave Martin feeling good about the freshman after the game.
"If I don't come in here enthused and positive to help him, then that's a sad statement for me," Martin said. "He doesn't come in here and prepare as a team that had our record. He comes in here as a kid that wants every bit of that responsibility that he accepted when he chose to come in here and create a turnaround during his time here, and he continues to battle. I'm real happy for him and our team."
KACINAS LEADS USC IN THE PAINT. Frank Martin told Mindaugas Kacinas recently he needed to concentrate more of his effort into rebounding, and it paid off Thursday afternoon. Kacinas hauled in a team-high seven rebounds - six of them in the first half - before fouling out against Vanderbilt. His efforts spurred the Gamecocks, normally plagued by their frontcourt woes, to out-rebound Vanderbilt 45-31.
"I get really pissed if I don't get a ball on the offensive glass," Kacinas said. "I just always want to get it. To be honest, I hate when I get just seven boards. I want to get like, at least, 10 every time."
South Carolina's dominance on the glass - the Gamecocks collected 26 offensive rebounds - largely determined the outcome of the game. Vanderbilt only took 48 shots - making 21 of them - while South Carolina was able to take 64 shots and made 24. Having four forwards with at least five rebounds each against Vanderbilt could signal a turning of the corner for a frontcourt that has struggled to escape Martin's doghouse of late.
"When we got to SEC play, out bigs are really struggling," Kacinas said. "We always get into foul trouble, but everything is about the mentality, how focused you are, because sometimes when they have good bigs, we focus on their best abilities - what they can do - and we just light them up."
WILLIAMS HEATS BACK UP. Brenton Williams had a tough game at Tennessee, scoring just eight points, but he rebounded with a 14-point, three-rebound, two-assist night against Vanderbilt. Williams was a perfect complement to Thornwell, letting the freshman swingman take over the game, but offering a layup or three-pointer when the time was right.
Though most of his value comes as a pure scorer, Williams didn't drown his team's chances with an abundance of shot attempts. Rather, he took good shots when they were available and made a few looks for himself when he needed to. The senior guard shot 5-11 from the floor and 2-6 from behind the 3-point line. His double-digit scoring performance was his seventh in South Carolina's last eight games.
END OF THE RUN. The win snaps Vanderbilt's five-game winning streak in the series. The Commodores now lead the overall series 28-25.
Team SEC, Overall
Florida 11-0, 22-2
Kentucky 9-2, 19-5
Ole Miss 7-4, 16-8
Georgia 7-4, 13-10
LSU 6-5, 15-8
Tennessee 6-5, 15-9
Texas A&M 5-6, 14-10
Vanderbilt 5-6, 13-10
Missouri 5-6, 17-7
Arkansas 4-7, 15-9
Alabama 4-7, 10-14
Mississippi State 3-8, 13-11
Auburn 3-8, 11-11
South Carolina 2-9, 9-15
South Carolina 65, Vanderbilt 59
Missouri 86, Arkansas 85.
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