South Carolina seeks “final four” berth

What was predicted to be a Villanova versus Duke confrontation for a “final four” berth has turned into the first regional finale pitting two Southeastern Conference schools since 1986 as 2017 Tire Pros Puerto Rico Tip-Off participant South Carolina challenges Florida in New York Sunday for a spot in the national semi-finals next week in Arizona.

The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (25-10) will meet fourth-seeded Florida (27-8) for the third time this season at Madison Square Garden Sunday with a trip to the “final four” at stake. The last time two SEC schools meet in a NCAA semi-final-qualifying game was 1986 when LSU bested Kentucky 59-57 in the Southeast Regional finale in Atlanta.

South Carolina, which has advanced farther than any other Gamecock squad in the NCAA tournament in the school’s ninth appearance in the national event, defeated the Gators 57-53 in mid-January in Columbia with Florida besting the Gamecocks 81-66 a month later in Gainesville.

Florida leads the all-time series with South Carolina 44-24, but the Gamecocks have won two of the last three games with the Gators. South Carolina tied for third in the SEC with a 12-6 conference mark while Florida was 14-4 to place second behind Kentucky’s 15-3 record.

After the Gamecocks defeated Baylor 70-50 Friday and holding the Bears 23 points below their season scoring average, South Carolina coach Frank Martin talk about his school’s SEC rivals before Florida’s 84-83 overtime victory over Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden.

“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,” said Martin, who led Kansas State to a third-place finish in the 2009 Tire Pros Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

“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,” added Martin, who is in his fifth season at South Carolina with a 95-73 record.

When asked about the SEC, Florida coach Mike White said he knows “there’s been some negativity toward the SEC potentially underachieving over these last couple years. Within our conference, we know the potential and I think that our conference has, is full of good coaches, tremendous talent, a lot of young talent, recruiting classes continue to get stronger and stronger and we have three (Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida) in the Elite 8. And who knows, I mean, I think the SEC’s going to be better next year, I really do. With the guys that are coming back, and again the young talent that will continue to grow within our league.”

The Gamecocks, who had lost six of nine games entering the NCAA tournament, have now won three-straight NCAA games starting with victories last weekend over 10th-seeded Marquette (93-73) and second-seeded Duke (88-81) in Greenville, S. C.

South Carolina is the last of three schools scheduled to compete in the 2017 Tire Pros Puerto Rico Tip-Off still participating in the 2017 NCAA tournament. The other two NCAA teams – Florida State (Atlantic Coast, 26-9) and Iowa State (Big 12, 24-11) – were eliminated last weekend.

Boise State (Mountain West Conference, 20-12) and Illinois State (Missouri Valley, 28-7), two other 2017 Tire Pros Puerto Rico Tip-Off participants, played in the 2017 NIT and each split a pair of games. With five schools posting 20 or more wins this season, the combined record for the eight teams scheduled for the 2017 Tire Pros Puerto Rico Tip-Off is 169-99 (63.1 percent).

The 2017 Tire Pros Puerto Rico Tip-Off is scheduled for November 16, 17 and 19 in San Juan. Other schools competing in the three-day, 12-game bracketed in-season tournament will be Tulsa (American Athletic, 15-17), UTEP (Conference USA, 15-17) and Western Michigan (Mid-American, 16-16).