NEW YORK -- Before South Carolina coach Frank Martin acknowledged his players for a terrific defensive performance in the Gamecocks' 70-50 win over Baylor in the East Regional semifinal on Friday, he paid homage to his Southeastern Conference rivals.
"I want to credit the teams in our league in the SEC for preparing us for the kind of games that you have to play at this time of year," Martin said. "Those coaches, those players that we fought against every single day got these guys prepared to harden, to understand how hard and how disciplined you have to play to have a chance to win at this time of year."
South Carolina (25-10), seeded seventh, is headed to the Elite Eight for the first time after a stellar defensive effort in front of a pro-Gamecocks crowd at Madison Square Garden. Martin's squad held Baylor to just 30 percent (17 of 56) shooting, forcing 16 turnovers and holding the Bears to a long scoring drought in the first half that they never recovered from.
It was South Carolina's second 20-point margin of victory in this tournament. The Gamecocks knocked off Marquette 93-73 in the first round.
The Gamecocks went 12-6 in the rough-and-tumble SEC, which sent five schools into the tournament.
Sindarius Thornwell, the Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, led South Carolina with 24 points. P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva added 12 points each.
Johnathan Motley paced third-seeded Baylor (27-8) with 18 points and nine rebounds.
South Carolina turned in one of its best defensive efforts of the season in the first half, leading to a 37-22 cushion. It held the Bears to just 25 percent (8 of 32) from the floor.
"We got to have guys that are going to believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we want to do," said Martin of his team's defensive philosophy. "Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique. It all starts with our mindset. We have got guys that are completely bought into what we do."
Thornwell scored 10 points in the half and nine points with six rebounds as the Gamecocks held the lead for 16:11.
"We pride ourselves on our defense," Thornwell remarked. "We know that's our bread and butter and we know we have a good defense and we go out and guard. We know it's a 40-minute game, and we know teams are going to make runs, but we can't take our foot off the pedal, we got to keep the pressure on and keep guarding."
The Bears used a 10-0 spurt to get within 49-38 with 10:41 to play, but would get no closer the rest of the way. The Gamecocks responded with 3-pointers from Duane Notice and Thornwell within 54 seconds of each other to push the South Carolina lead to 55-38 at the 9:22 mark.
The Gamecocks extended their lead to 46-26 after a layup from Notice early in the second half.
Thornwell's 3-pointer, his fourth to that point, and a jumper from Rakym Felder, pushed the Gamecocks' lead to 63-41.
The Bears were plagued by foul trouble in the first half and South Carolina took advantage, making 9 of 12 from the line. The Gamecocks were in the double-bonus for the latter part of the half.
"It's one of the best defenses that we came across," noted Baylor guard Ishmail Wainwright, who was held scoreless and committed four turnovers. "West Virginia also has the same defense. But they (South Carolina) just executed, they double teamed, they triple teamed Mot (Johnathan Motley) and made it tough to score the ball every time we caught it.
"Every time we got a catch, there was somebody right there and, I mean, it was, Coach (Frank) Martin did a great job with the guys and they're a great defensive team."
An 18-0 run by the Gamecocks gave them a 31-15 lead with 2:50 left in the half. Baylor went 7:47 without a basket, committing four of its seven first-half turnovers in that span.
South Carolina led 37-22 at the half, tying for the least amount of points allowed this season in a half.
Baylor missed 11 of its first 14 shots, but only trailed 11-9.
NOTES: Baylor is the 17th opponent South Carolina has held to under 40 percent from the field. ... The Gamecocks entered the game ninth in the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage defense. ... Baylor became the 18th opponent to shoot below 30 percent from 3-point land against the Gamecocks this season. ... Baylor and South Carolina were meeting for the seventh time, with all games occurring since 2006. Baylor leads the series 4-3. ... Baylor F Ishmail Wainright is the first player in the school's history to appear in four NCAA Tournaments. He failed to score, while committing four turnovers. ... F Johnathan Motley is the first-ever unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection for Baylor. ... The Bears were ranked No. 1 in January after winning their first 15 games of the season. ... The Gamecocks are fifth in the nation in turnovers forced. They forced 16 miscues against Baylor.