When the horn sounded to end South Carolina’s epic quadruple overtime game against Alabama on Feb. 7, Gamecocks guard Sindarius Thornwell wasn’t happy, understandable because his team had lost.
But a gargantuan individual effort by Thornwell spoke volumes about the man South Carolina coach Frank Martin knew he had to have when he took over a struggling program in 2012. Despite scoring just five points in the first half, Thornwell, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, finished with 44, to go along with 21 rebounds, a feat, per ESPN Stats and Info, that put him in unique company. Not in the previous 20 seasons had a player scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds on the offensive and defensive glass.
Impressive, but Thornwell also breathed rarified air after eclipsing a couple of Southeastern Conference records left behind by the great Pete Maravich, still college basketball’s all-time leading scorer after just three seasons at LSU. Thornwell attempted 33 free throws, breaking Maravich’s 1969 mark of 31 set against Oregon State. Thornwell’s 25 made free throws broke the Pistol’s record of 22 against Florida, also set in 1969.
To put that in perspective, Alabama took 33 free throws and made 22.
None of Thornwell’s accomplishments on that historic night -- South Carolina had never before played in a four-overtime game -- surprised Martin, or any of his assistant coaches. They recruited Thornwell to be the bedrock of a rebuilding effort that, Martin has since admitted, was more extensive than he realized when he left Kansas State to take over at South Carolina.
“There were plenty of schools actively recruiting him,” Martin said. “Established programs that were winning. He took a chance in coming here, in believing in me, knowing it was going to be hard.”
Associate head coach Matt Figger, who’s been with Martin for 10 years dating back to Kansas State, remembers that Thornwell, who started his prep career at Lancaster High School in South Carolina and finished at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, was the first player he recruited for South Carolina. He’d been on the job all of two days.
“He was a kid we targeted as soon as we got here,” Figgers said. “He was a kid that, hopefully, we wanted to start our program with. I was very intrigued by his size as a guard. I thought he was very competitive. I thought he had a knack to get to get to the rim and draw contact and cash in at the free-throw line. I felt like he was the type of kid that always had something to prove from a national perspective. I liked his competitive side.
“To us, that was very important to our future identity. If we could just get this kid, eventually, he’d be the type of guy we could build our program around.”
Thornwell had heard of the fiery Martin’s reputation and that he could be hard on his players. He wasn’t afraid.
“In high school, it was hard to make a decision about where to go to college because every coach is telling you the same thing, which is exactly what you want to hear,” Thornwell said. “When I met Frank for the first time, he immediately reminded me of my uncle. He told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I looked at him not necessarily as a coach, but a life teacher who could make me a better man. We’ve had a connection ever since.”
That connection would eventually be tested, but Thornwell has always done everything Martin wanted, and sometimes, more than even Martin would have thought to ask.
As a freshman, Thornwell earned a spot on the All-SEC Freshman team after averaging 13.4 points, 4.1 rebounds 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals. South Carolina finished 14-20 overall and in 13th place in the SEC, but Martin and his staff were encouraged as they kept recruiting more pieces to fit with Thornwell.
As a sophomore, Thornwell fought tendinitis in both knees, but still averaged 11 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals while playing 31 minutes a game. The Gamecocks ended the season 17-16 and started drifting upward in the SEC standings, finishing 11th.
“He’s shouldn’t have practiced,” Martin said. “He shouldn’t have played. But he refused to take time off because he knew we just didn’t have enough to compete without him. That courage said a lot to me about who he was, and then by the end of the year we started winning games. After the season, he was shut down for six months. He couldn’t even jog. That’s how bad his knees were.”
" If we could just get this kid, eventually, he’d be the type of guy we could build our program around."
As a junior, a healthy Thornwell again stuffed the stat sheet (13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals) and earned a spot on the SEC All-Defensive team. South Carolina continued trending upward, with a 25-9 record and tie for third in the SEC. The Gamecocks missed out on an NCAA tournament bid in large part because of a weak non-conference schedule, but played in the NIT.
“That’s how we came up with the slogan ‘Unfinished Business,’ Thornwell said. “Our whole goal coming into this season was to become an NCAA tournament team.”
Facing a bulked up schedule, the Gamecocks staked an early claim to that NCAA bid, jumping out to a 7-0 start that included wins over Michigan and Syracuse. Then, on Dec. 4, South Carolina issued a press release that was as surprising as it was brief:
“University of South Carolina head men’s basketball coach Frank Martin announced on Sunday that senior guard Sindarius Thornwell is suspended indefinitely due to a violation of athletic department policy.”
Without Thornwell, who would ultimately sit for six games, the Gamecocks were 3-3, with losses to Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis. Thornwell was reinstated in time for SEC games, and he’s spent the last two months making up for lost time.
“Sitting on the sidelines those six games, it pushed me,” Thornwell said. “Our team went through some tough moments, and I wasn’t there to help them. When [he was reinstated], I made a promise to my teammates to give them everything I had to give the rest of the season. I owed them that, and the fans, too.”
Martin, who’s developed a father-son relationship with Thornwell over the years, doesn’t want the suspension to define Thornwell.
“I don’t always suspend, because it puts an X on a kid’s chest, and I don’t want them starting life with an X,” Martin said. “When I suspend, it’s revisiting a topic that we’ve already discussed. My goal is to make a kid understand, to help him change, because I want him to be a successful man.
“When you leave college for [pro basketball], they don’t put you on a line and run you. They don’t suspend you. They just give you a pink slip and say ‘next.’ ”
True to his word, Thornwell has played every game like that pink slip -- or missing the NCAA tournament again -- was a hellhound on his trail. In 16 SEC games, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 steals and shot .364 percent from 3-point range and 84.2 from the free-throw line.
With its leader back on court, South Carolina started 9-1 in the SEC. Then came that quadruple-OT heartbreaker, and after a win at Mississippi State, three consecutive losses. A win over Tennessee on Feb. 25 ended that brief slump, and did enough to secure the Gamecocks’ long-awaited NCAA bid. South Carolina hasn’t played in the tournament since 2004.
Only after that bit of business is taken care of will Thornwell turn his attention to the NBA. But scouts, who had been keeping at eye on South Carolina’s P.J. Dozier because he’s 6-foot-5 and can play the point, were reminded by Thornwell’s 44/21 effort that he might have a place in the league, too.
Martin and Figger think he belongs.
“He’s a relentless defender,” Martin said. “I think he could defend different players in the NBA. Whoever takes him and gives him a chance to get on the court won’t be able to take him out of the game.”
Figger thinks Thornwell will be able to do the same things in the NBA that he’s always done.
“He helps teams win,” Figger said. “He’s unbelievably basketball intelligent. The fact that he could defend multiple positions has to have value. As far as his perceived weaknesses, his ball handling has improved, and he’s a much more consistent perimeter shooter now than when he first got here, because he’s put in the work to get better.”
Thornwell thinks he has something to prove, and he’s fine with that. NBA rosters are dotted with players who have refused to be shackled by limitations someone else placed on them.
“Growing up, I was always the underdog,” Thornwell said. “I was always being told what I was not going to be able to do. Coming up through high school against ranked players, I’d always heard that those guys were better than me.
“In some ways, I felt like I’d always gotten the short end of the stick. That’s always driven me to work harder and get better.”
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