National champs

Gamecocks women's basketball team wins NCAA Championship for first time

Frank Martin’s fashion sense got some love. Alex English preserved memories on his smart phone. Darius Rucker cried at center court at Madison Square Garden, and Dawn Staley finally cut down a net.

The South Carolina men’s and women’s basketball teams made historic runs in the NCAA tournament, with the women defeating Mississippi State to win the program’s first-ever national championship and the men making their first Final Four appearance. As the wins kept coming, Gamecock pride swelled on campus, across social media and throughout the country.

The pinnacle came Sunday night, when A’ja Wilson scored 23 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the Gamecocks’ 67-55 victory. The win at last gave Staley, who left Temple to become South Carolina’s coach in 2008, the national championship she had been denied in three Final Four appearances as a point guard at Virginia and sparked celebrations shared in videos, Facebook posts and tweets.

Staley’s Twitter feed — not to be confused with the separate one for her shoes — filled up with congratulations, including one she retweeted from MSNBC Live anchor and Columbia native Craig Melvin. Magic Johnson also got in on the celebratory act, congratulating Staley’s team on their “phenomenal play” and “well deserved” championship.

With the men’s team joining the women on college basketball’s biggest stage, South Carolina became the 10th school to send both squads to the Final Four, a feat accomplished by Syracuse last year and by UConn twice since 2011.

Before the women cut down the nets in Dallas, Martin enjoyed a breakout star turn on social media as he led the Gamecock men into new territory. South Carolina had last managed an NCAA tournament victory in 1973, when another Frank — McGuire — stalked the sidelines and Richard Nixon was president.

After the seventh-seeded Gamecocks rode their suffocating defense and Southeastern Conference player of the year Sindarius Thornwell to their first-ever Sweet 16 appearance, venerable Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins penned an article on Martin’s team topped with a headline for the ages: “South Carolina is like Cinderella — if she came to the NCAA ball with brass knuckles.”

Martin himself fired up Gamecock players, fans and just about everyone else who read his open letter to his team on The Players’ Tribune after Carolina’s second-round upset of No. 2 seed and prohibitive tournament favorite Duke. Martin described how, when he arrived at USC in 2012, a season after the Gamecocks went 2-14 in the SEC, he could hear a fan’s entire cellphone conversation during a game at Colonial Life Arena.

This season, the Gamecocks averaged 13,396 fans — the highest average attendance on record. In his letter, Martin thanked the fans for supporting a team that has bought into his full-throttle philosophy. “I’ve seen these guys lose,” Martin wrote. “But I have never seen them defeated.”

Observers also heard, in Martin’s post-game press conference after a 77-70 win against Florida sent the Gamecocks to the Final Four, how his mother single-handedly raised him and inspired him to reach for his dreams. And after the Gamecocks lost 73-77 to No. 1 seed Gonzaga, Martin delivered powerfully emotional remarks about how much his players meant to him and the Columbia community.  

“What these kids have done is pretty special,” Martin said in a post-game speech clip retweeted repeatedly. “They’ve impacted our community in such an unbelievable way, which is worth so much more than the score of a game.”

Martin’s eye-catching threads, including the impressive pocket square and complementary paisley tie he sported for a 70-50 thrashing of Baylor and the unapologetically garnet jacket he wore in beating Florida, also garnered attention, as did his fierce sideline demeanor. Nicole Auberbach, national college basketball and football reporter for USA Today, tweeted, “Frank Martin’s suit is, again, exquisite,” before the Florida game, while Bleacher Report tweeted a snippet of the Gamecocks’ dismantling of Baylor, saying “Someone tell Frank Martin his team’s up by 15” as Martin intensely argued a call.

It all made for quite a colorful few weeks, as former Gamecock great English filmed the aftermath of the Duke upset on his phone and pop/country music star Rucker wept during an interview as he discussed the Gamecocks’ unlikely Final Four appearance.  

Staley summed it up with a tweet directed to Martin and the men’s basketball program: “Now that I’ve digested what an incredible joy @GamecockMBB gave us this season—thnx @FrankMartin_SC & fellas for reppin us so well.”

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