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South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell is the breakout star of the NCAA tournament

Win over Duke puts spotlight on the relative unknown

As Sindarius Thornwell stood near midcourt fulfilling his postgame media obligations, he kept glancing from the TV reporter in front of him to the sea of garnet and black filling the lower bowl of the Bon Secours Wellness Arena directly across from the South Carolina bench.

That’s where his teammates were celebrating in the moments after No. 7 seed South Carolina shocked No. 2 seed Duke, 88-81, in Sunday’s second round of the NCAA tournament. And, with all due respect to the face time he was getting with a national television audience, the celebration was where he wanted to be.

“This is definitely the highlight of my basketball career,” said Thornwell, who was in the crowd with those fans and family — in full uniform — more than an hour after one of the biggest shocks in the first weekend of the tournament. “This is unbelievable.”

You never heard of Sindarius Thornwell? You’re probably not alone, even after an outstanding season in which the South Carolina senior was named the SEC Player of the Year. Thornwell scored a game-high 24 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists in Sunday’s win over Duke, two days after he had 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the March 17 win over No. 10 seed Marquette, South Carolina’s first NCAA tournament win since 1973.

Even though he was South Carolina’s best player when he came out of high school, he wasn’t a one-and-done attracting national attention. No one has predicted NBA stardom for the 22-year-old guard. Even now NBAdraft.net expects him to be no better than a second-round pick, behind teammate PJ Dozier.

Yet on a day when the four finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year Award were announced — Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Josh Hart (Villanova), Frank Mason III (Kansas) and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue) — Thornwell, who never got beyond being named a top 30 finalist, proved to be the best player through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

“I feel like I’m underrated. I feel like we’re underrated,” Thornwell said. “I definitely have a chip on my shoulder. There are a lot of great players that were mentioned in the player of the year conversation, and it’s fun to go up against them.

“I don’t see why I’m not mentioned along with them.”

Luke Kennard (5) of the Duke Blue Devils shoots the ball against Sindarius Thornwell (0) of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the first half during the second round of the 2017 NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 19 in Greenville, South Carolina.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Thornwell can add Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to the group that can’t comprehend his lack of recognition.

“He’s really unique. He leads their team in everything,” said Krzyzewski, who went on to describe Thornwell as “the best unheralded great player in the United States.”

That’s high praise for a guy who doesn’t have particularly great size (he’s listed at 6-foot-5, which is small for an NBA off guard), isn’t known to be particularly quick and has never been described as being a great leaper.

But after four years of college — a rarity for star players these days — Thornwell has demonstrated this season that he might be one of the most complete players in the college game.

Against Duke, he’d often alternate between guarding guard Grayson Allen on the perimeter and — on switches — battling 6-foot-9 Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson on the low block. He scored tough buckets on the interior and hit three of six 3-pointers.

Maybe the best part of his game is being one of those in-your-jock suffocating ball defenders, with some of the qualities that made Bruce Bowen great during his NBA career.

“He’s a monster,” said Marquette guard Andrew Rowsey, after being hounded by Thornwell for part of Friday’s game. “He’s going to have a great career.”

Thornwell’s talents were recognized as early as eighth grade. That’s when an AAU coach took Thornwell, who grew up two hours east of Greenville, South Carolina, in Lancaster, to a tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then called Lancaster High School coach Ricardo Priester.

“He started doing some things out there that I didn’t know he could do,” Priester recalled. “Then [the AAU coach] told me ‘Sindarius Thornwell will be the best player to ever come out of Lancaster.’ I told him, ‘I sure hope you’re a prophet.’ ”

Credit that AAU coach with a Miss Cleo moment. In three years at Lancaster, Thornwell was a huge star. As a junior, he scored 47 points in a game, breaking the previous school scoring mark of 44.

“He did it on the road against Chester High School, and when he got to 47, the crowd was egging him on to go for 50,” Priester said. “But we don’t run up the score on anyone, and when he got the ball on the final possession, I told him to hold it.”

As the buzzer sounded, Thornwell angrily slammed the ball to the ground and stormed off the court. Priester confronted a tearful Thornwell in the locker room.

“You crying about scoring 50?” Priester asked him. “One day you’re not going to be concerned about scoring 50 points against Chester.”

Thornwell played his senior year at national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, becoming a four-star recruit. He was rated the 41st overall prospect in the class of 2013 by ESPN.com, and was the top priority of coach Frank Martin when he took the job at South Carolina.

Once Thornwell committed, others followed. One of them was Justin McKie, a high-scoring guard from Columbia, South Carolina, and the son of South Carolina’s all-time leading scorer B.J. McKie, who was a guard on the Gamecocks team that was upset by Coppin State in 1997. Two years later, Columbia’s PJ Dozier, the son of former South Carolina great Perry Dozier, committed.

“I’ve gotten to grow up with him these last four years, and to see him mature has been incredible,” Justin McKie said. “He’s our leader and he’s definitely underrated. But he likes that because it fuels him to become a better player. Not being considered one of the best players in the nation motivates him.”

Thornwell believes the slight might be due in part to his six-game suspension earlier this year for what the team described as a “violation of athletic department policy.” (Shortly after his suspension, there were reports that he had been arrested for possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license.)

South Carolina split the six games he missed. When Thornwell returned, he went on to have the best season of his career, averaging 21.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

That helped South Carolina advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 or more teams. South Carolina has not won two games in the NCAA tournament since 1973, when Alex English, perhaps the greatest player in the history of the program, was leading the Gamecocks.

English, who attended Sunday’s game, sang the praises of Thornwell afterward.

“He’s a four-year player, he has experience, he’s aggressive — he does everything on the court,” English said. “He probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves because people don’t consider the SEC a powerhouse conference. They just see Kentucky, and everybody else.”

Thornwell and his teammates are looking to change that. As they celebrated their first NCAA tournament appearance — grabbing some of the March Madness signage that decorated the locker room — Thornwell said the job has yet to be finished.

“We beat two top 25 teams before I was suspended, so I feel like we’re better than people think we are and deserve more credit than we get,” he said. “When the season started, our goal was to make the tournament, because we had never been here before.”

The Gamecocks travel to New York to play No. 3 seed Baylor on Friday.

“It means a lot — a lot of us are from South Carolina and we’re able to put our state on the map,” Thornwell said. “Now that we’re here, why not make a run?”

After Sunday’s win, Priester, Thornwell’s high school coach, called the person he describes as the best player he’s ever had.

“You’re going to the Sweet 16,” Priester told him. “Beats the heck out of scoring 50 against Chester, doesn’t it?”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.