GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Frank Martin had a message for long-suffering fans: It won't take the Gamecocks 44 years to win another NCAA Tournament game.
Sindarius Thornwell had 29 points and 11 rebounds to lead seventh-seeded South Carolina to a 93-73 victory over Marquette to close first-round play in the East Region on Friday night.
When Martin took the job five years ago, you could hear about every instruction he called out, the cavernous, 18,000-seat home arena was so empty. This time, the host arena about 2 hours north of campus was filled with boisterous Gamecock fans.
"We're not there yet," Martin said after the cheers died down. "But it's fun right now."
It might get less fun come Sunday. If the Gamecocks (23-10) want an NCAA winning streak, they will have to beat No. 2 seed Duke, which blew past Troy 87-65 in an earlier game.
South Carolina last won a game in the NCAAs when it topped Southwestern Louisiana 90-85 in a regional consolation game on March 17, 1973. Exactly 44 years later, the drought — the Gamecocks were one-and-done in their next five appearances — finally came to end in front of a boisterous, South Carolina crowd who traveled the 2 hours north from Columbia to witness the end of an ugly run they couldn't have imagined would last this long.
"This is a great day for Gamecock basketball," said Alex English, the Denver Nuggets great who scored 22 points in that long-ago South Carolina win.
A long time coming!
201 different schools had won a tourney game since South Carolina's last victory in 1973. That drought ended tonight. pic.twitter.com/jGj7ThRMXj
— ESPN (@espn) March 18, 2017
Marquette (19-13) gave fans some serious worries in the opening half, going up by 10 points. But the Gamecocks used an 11-0 run midway through the second half to take control. When Thornwell, voted Southeastern Conference player of the year by league coaches, nailed his third 3-pointer with 6:37 to play, South Carolina was up 76-67 and pulling away.
P.J. Dozier had 21 points, 13 in the South Carolina's second-half rally.
Jujuan Johnson had 16 points to lead Marquette.
South Carolina's win spoiled a made-for-TV second-rounder between Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his former Blue Devils point guard and longtime assistant, Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski.
Wojciechowski said his team could not match the Gamecocks' physicality in the second half. "We couldn't sustain that as long as we needed to and they created separation," he said.
The Golden Eagles could not keep up with the Gamecocks defensive pressure or high-tempo play in the second half.
Marquette came out firing — Rowsey opened the game with a four-point play — and moved in front 26-16. South Carolina, though, cut things to 40-39 at the half on Maik Kotsar's layup with 42 seconds left.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles withered in the second half, committing 12 of their 19 turnovers in the final 20 minutes. They also made only three 3-pointers after hitting eight in the opening half.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks won't have it so free and easy against Duke as they did in this one. South Carolina will have to play more disciplined and find others besides Thornwell to make significant contributions if they hope to move one.
NOT LIKE FATHER
South Carolina senior guard Justin McKie now has something his father, B.J. McKie, never accomplished as the Gamecocks' all-time leading scorer — an NCAA win. The elder McKie played in two NCAA Tournaments, losing as a No. 2 seed to Coppin State in 1997 and as a No. 3 seed to Richmond in 1998. "We've waited for this moment," the younger McKie said. "I'm just glad that we went out and embraced it, and went out and got the 'W.' We played hard defense and made some shots tonight. It's just an unbelievable feeling."
— Gamecock MBB (@GamecockMBB) March 18, 2017
THREE OF A KIND
It was the third NCAA Tournament game for Marquette graduate transfer Katin Reinhardt with his third different program. It was also his third loss in tournament play after losing first games with UNLV in 2013 and Southern Cal last season.
South Carolina plays No. 2 seed Duke on Sunday.
Follow Pete Iacobelli on Twitter @PeteIacobelli