NEW YORK – Leading up to its Sweet 16 matchup against South Carolina, Baylor devoted three hours devising ways to contain SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell.
Perhaps the Bears should have spent all their time trying to figure out angles to attack the Gamecocks’ smothering defense. There simply was no room for Baylor to breathe all night.
Everywhere they turned, there were South Carolina defenders in their faces. Shooting just 30.4 percent, the third-seeded Bears found very little offensive momentum and ended the season with an ugly 70-50 loss to the seventh-seeded Gamecocks on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Baylor’s 20-point loss was its most lopsided in 17 NCAA tournament games under Scott Drew.
“They made it hard to score to say the least,” Drew said. “When you get off to a bad start, sometimes it’s hard to get into a good rhythm or a flow. They really buckle down in their halfcourt defense. When you miss the first couple, instead of the basket getting bigger it gets smaller.”
The Bears (27-8) had experienced considerable success under Drew in two previous postseason trips to Madison Square Garden, winning the NIT in 2013 after a runnerup finish in 2009. With their physical defense, the Gamecocks (25-10) made sure the Bears didn’t reach the Elite Eight after advancing to that level in 2010 and 2012.
“This is the best defensive team I’ve coached in college basketball,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin. “We’ve been real good defensively all year and we were on point today. It’s what gives us our edge. Attitude comes first and we’ve got guys who believe in our mission.”
The Gamecocks reached the Elite Eight for the first time in school history after making the Sweet 16 with an 88-81 win over second-seeded Duke in the round of 32.
Thornwell showed why the Bears spent so much time preparing for him as he scored a game-high 24 points after he had amassed a combined 53 points in NCAA tournament wins over Marquette and Duke. The senior guard nailed four of 10 3-pointers and was eight of 10 from the free throw line.
But he had plenty of help as PJ Dozier and Chris Silva scored 12 points apiece and Duane Notice scored 11. In contrast, Johnathan Motley was Baylor’s only double-figure scorer with 18 points on eight of 17 shooting.
The Gamecocks focused on stopping Motley and made it difficult for him to get into position to score. They often double and triple teamed Baylor’s biggest threat when he got the ball.
“They made it extremely tough, we couldn’t buy a basket,” Motley said. “We planned for it, but it’s different when you’re out there. The game was extremely physical. Coach Martin had a game plan and they executed.”
Despite a size advantage, the Bears were outrebounded by a 40-37 margin and also committed 16 turnovers. The Gamecocks limited the Bears to 25 percent shooting in the first half and went into halftime with a 37-22 lead.
“We knew they were big and long and we tried our best to attack them and play hard,” Thornwell said. “Whoever was on Motley, we didn’t want to let him go to the middle. We got helpside defense on him from the baseline, and we tried to make him shoot over us.”
Though the Bears were cold from the start, they still managed to take a 15-13 lead midway through the first half. But the Gamecocks responded with an 18-0 run and took command the rest of the game.
Dozier started the run with a basket before Notice drained a 3-pointer. After Motley walked and Manu Lecomte missed on a drive to the basket, Thornwell scored inside to give the Gamecocks a 20-15 lead.
They were just warming up as Silva and Dozier hit free throws and Rakym Felder scored on a drive to the basket. After Thornwell nailed a short jumper, Silva scored in the paint and Thornwell drained a pair of free throws to push the lead to 31-15 with 2:50 left in the first half.
Following 11 straight missed shots, Jake Lindsey finally broke the drought for the Bears with a 3-pointer. But Dozier and Notice ended the half with 3-pointers to send the Gamecocks into halftime with a 37-22 edge.
It quickly got worse in the early minutes of the second half as Dozier drained an outside shot and Thornwell nailed a 3-pointer to give the Gamecocks a 42-22 lead.
The Bears showed they weren’t finished when Lecomte nailed consecutive 3-pointers and Al Freeman hit a pair of free throws to cut South Carolina’s lead to 49-38.
But Thornwell and Notice answered with 3-pointers to stretch South Carolina’s lead to 55-38 midway through the second half.
“We haven’t quit all year, so I knew we would come back and answer because that’s the type of team we have,” Drew said. “But you have to give them credit for answering. Those were two big 3s by two seniors that didn’t want to go home.”
Holding a 63-42 lead in the closing minutes, the South Carolina fans chanted “We want Florida.” The Gamecocks’ SEC rival took down Wisconsin in overtime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, advancing with a 84-83 win in the late game Friday night.