It's been an emotional three weeks for the South Carolina Gamecocks.
After winning their first tournament contest in 44 years, several fans were satisfied with the team's 93-73 win over 10-seed Marquette. Happy faces could be seen all over Columbia following that Friday night win, but the excitement wasn't over.
South Carolina provided their fans with even more memories after toppling NCAA Tournament "blue blood" Duke in Greenville. Sure, the win busted a few brackets, but it gave a whole lot of folks reason to believe that what the Gamecocks were doing was magical. Fans knew something special was happening.
So, the Garnet and Black faithful made their reservations and made their way to cold New York City, where the magic would continue.The Gamecocks opened the Sweet 16 with a convincing 70-50 win over Baylor to catapult them into the Elite Eight, where a familiar foe would be waiting for them. Still, the fans were just as hungry as the players and it showed.
The last time South Carolina saw the Florida Gators, they were handed a 15-point loss in Gainesville. But that was a different team and everyone seemingly knew it. The team that suffered that loss wasn't the same team that just handed the Bears a 20-point drumming in the Garden. And South Carolina proved they were better than their last showing against Florida. With a 77-70 win over Florida punctuated with a dunk from Duane Notice, the Gamecocks punched their ticket to the Final Four.
It was a real tear-jerker for fans. There were even stories of how famed USC alum and country music star Darius Rucker shed tears in the Mecca of Basketball watching his team do something they've never done.
"I've been a big Coach Martin supporter since he got here," Rucker said, "and talking to him and getting to know him really well, I knew he was going to turn it around...but here we are. We're in the Final Four, man."
The scoreboard would read "East Regional Champions" long after the fans left Madison Square Garden, but it was still sort of unfathomable for fans once they made it into Phoenix.
"It's just an exciting time for the school," Alex Haley of Atlanta said. "We've really worked hard. Our players have been putting in work. Frank Martin came here with a plan. He executed that plan. Everyone bought in. Now, we're here. You can't just put something like that into words."
And the Gamecocks continued to show that resiliency throughout the night against Gonzaga. South Carolina showed how battle-tested they were time after time in University of Phoenix Stadium, but it just wasn't enough. The tears that flowed weren't tears of joy this time for Carolina fans in Phoenix, in the Midlands and all over the country. There were hopes that the magic would continue, but Cinderella's slipper was broken and the historic ride was over.
As tough as it was to initially digest the loss, Coach Martin understood that what he and his team accomplished did something that will be remembered for years to come.
"There's something powerful when you impact others. And what these kids have done is pretty special. When you get people to travel across the country by the masses because they believe in what you do, it's powerful stuff. And they've impacted our community in an unbelievable way, which is worth so much more than the score of a game. It's what it's all about. These kids are great role models. There's a lot of young kids that want to be the next Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie, and I don't get to coach them anymore, but they're part of my life forever."
The Gamecocks lose three seniors in Notice, Justin McKie, and SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell. For them, the ride has been an amazing one that they, too, will never forget.
"It's going to sting, man," Notice said when asked about taking off his Carolina uniform one last time. "It's golng to sting, especially because it felt like we were so close to bringing the program to new heights. The fact that all three of us aren't going to be here to do that again is going to be a tough pill to swallow. But we know that the program is being left in the right hands with the new guys that we have and the new additions that we'll have."
So, let the countdown begin. South Carolina is officially seven months away from building on this special foundation and only time will tell what the future holds for this program.