Two SEC East rivals will battle in the Elite Eight on Sunday in New York City for a trip to Glendale, Arizona, for the Final Four. Not many expected the South Carolina Gamecocks and Florida Gators to be in this position, but both teams have been impressive in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina dominated the Baylor Bears from tip-off as the Gamecocks rolled to a 70-50 victory on Friday night. Sindarius Thornwell led the way with 24 points while adding six rebounds.
Florida had a much tougher time with Wisconsin, needing a three-pointer at the buzzer by guard Chris Chiozza to escape with an 84-83 overtime win. The Gators led by eight points with less than two minutes left in regulation, only to watch the Badgers come back and tie it. Wisconsin then led by five with less than two minutes to play in overtime, but managed just five made free throws the rest of the way while Florida made its last four shots, including Chiozza’s game-winner.
South Carolina will be playing in its first-ever Elite Eight on Sunday. Florida is back in the Elite Eight for the seventh time since 2006, which ties the Gators with North Carolina for the most in that span.
East Region: No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks (25-10) vs. No. 4 Florida Gators (27-8)
When: 2:20 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: Madison Square Garden (New York City)
Line: Florida -3
Keys for South Carolina
South Carolina’s bread and butter is its defensive pressure. That is a big reason why the Gamecocks are in this position, holding Duke to 41.5 percent shooting from the field and limiting Baylor to just 50 points. South Carolina will look to continue its defensive dominance against Florida.
On Friday night, Baylor shot just 30.4 percent from the field and only 23.1 percent from three-point range. The Gamecocks forced the Bears into 16 turnovers and limited them to just 22 points in the first half.
Sindarius Thornwell also will need to maintain his strong play. The senior guard is averaging 25.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and three assists per game in the NCAA Tournament. In two games against the Gators this season, Thronwell averaged 21.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Keys for Florida
After getting off to a slow start in the NCAA Tournament, KeVaughn Allen showed up in a big way against Wisconsin. The Gators’ leading scorer poured in 35 points (on 11-of-24 shooting) in the overtime win over the Badgers.
Florida and South Carolina split the two meetings in the regular season with each team winning at home. In the first game, a 57-53 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 18, Allen managed just one point as he was 0-for-3 from the field. But in the rematch on Feb. 21, he led all scorers with 26 points as he was 3-for-5 from three-point range and 13-for-14 from the line. He also led the Gators with seven rebounds.
Florida is at its best when it gets balanced scoring throughout its lineup. In the earlier win over the Gamecocks, three other Gators besides Allen finished in double digits. And even though Allen was far and away the top scorer on Friday night, six other players chipped in at least seven points against the Badgers. Having more than one reliable scoring option not only takes pressure off of Allen to carry the load, but it also means South Carolina can’t focus on stopping just one player.
South Carolina’s defense has frustrated teams throughout this season and its historic NCAA Tournament run and the Gamecocks boast the SEC Player of the Year in Sindarius Thornwell. South Carolina has forced an average of 17 turnovers in its three Tournament wins, and managed 16 in its victory against Florida back in January.
The Gators must get off to a better start than they did against Wisconsin when they trailed by 10 points early. If the Gamecocks are able to impose their will from the start, like they did against Baylor on Friday night, that does not bode well for Florida, who has seen firsthand how suffocating South Carolina’s defense can be.
While most expected a Duke vs. Villanova East Regional final, South Carolina vs. Florida should be just as entertaining given the familiarity these teams have with each other. It’s somewhat fitting that the rubber match between these two will decide who advances to the Final Four.
Prediction: South Carolina 71, Florida 67
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.