JIM O’CONNELL, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s only right that South Carolina’s first trip to Final Four was earned through its defense.
A team known for a swarming zone used it effectively down the stretch to beat Florida 77-70 on Sunday and win the East Regional at Madison Square Garden.
Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points for the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) against the fourth-seeded Gators (27-9) in the all-Southeastern Conference matchup.
South Carolina will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday at Glendale, Arizona.
“Gamecock Nation, we heard you loud and clear,” coach Frank Martin roared as the team prepared to cut down the nets. “We’ll see you in Phoenix.”
The game was as close as expected until the final minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thornwell with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.
Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell, who scored eight straight points for the Gamecocks, was always where he needed to be including making a steal with 40 seconds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.
“I just made plays,” Thornwell said. “Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays.”
“Thornwell was just being Thornwell,” Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year. “He’s one of the best players in the country.”
PJ Dozier added 17 points for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Kotsar 12.
It all totaled to a Final Four trip for Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces.
Justin Leon had 18 points for the Gators who managed a 40-33 halftime lead on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. But that was it. Florida was 0 for 14 from beyond the arc in the second half, a lot like the 0-for-17 effort the Gators had in their first meeting with South Carolina this season.
South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, finished 23 for 31 from the free throw line, including a 9-for-10 effort from Thornwell.
South Carolina: This had been South Carolina’s deepest run in the NCAA Tournament. … The Gamecocks beat No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 Baylor on the way to the Elite Eight. … Until this tournament the Gamecocks hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973.
Florida: This was Florida’s first NCAA Tournament game against a Southeastern Conference opponent. … The Gators entered the game with an all-time 44-24 record against the Gamecocks, including 1-2 under White. … The Gators were trying for their sixth Final Four appearance and that includes the titles in 2006 and 2007.
Among those in attendance at Madison Square Garden were Hall of Famer Rick Barry, whose son Canyon plays for Florida, Paul McCartney and Darius Rucker.
South Carolina will meet Gonzaga in the Final Four on Saturday.
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