Few, who is known for his even-keeled demeanor, was so overcome with emotion that he executed a handstand in the locker room.
“I felt like I stuck it,” he said with a laugh, adding: “Sometimes I worry that my guys get like, it’s a job. And we’ve been on them to show emotion. So that’s my fairly weak effort of showing emotion.”
South Carolina (26-11), a seventh seed that had defied all expectation to get so far, was also making its first trip to the Final Four. The Gamecocks were led by Chris Silva, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds. Sindarius Thornwell, a senior guard who had not scored fewer than 24 points in a tournament game this year, was held to a relatively quiet 15.
“We played our hearts out the way we did all year,” the senior Justin McKie said, “and Gonzaga played a great game.”
It was just a matter of patience.
In his book, “Water the Bamboo,” Few’s college roommate, Greg Bell, used the plant as a metaphor for success. Even with regular watering, giant timber bamboo does not appear to make any gains for the first three years of its life. But then, suddenly, it will sprout 90 feet in just two months. It took the Bulldogs considerably longer to reach their newfound height, but that only made Saturday’s result all the sweeter.
Few’s South Carolina counterpart, Frank Martin, overcame a hardscrabble childhood to build a successful career in coaching, and his tailored suits cannot hide his rough edges. His intensity, embodied by his icy sideline stare, has rubbed off on his players. After warm-ups, the Gonzaga players gathered in a circle, and as they were breaking apart, a few South Carolina players sauntered through the huddle, bumping a few of the Bulldogs as they passed.
Then, before the opening tip, Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski approached Thornwell, one senior to another, and extended his hand. Thornwell, the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, brushed past him, leaving Karnowski to stare quizzically at Thornwell’s back and shrug.
“Maybe that’s how he is,” Karnowski said after the game. “I don’t really know him personally.”
Karnowski was happy to be on the floor at all. He missed most of last season with a lower-back injury that required surgery. At 7 feet 1 inch and 300 pounds, Karnowski had four inches and more than 70 pounds on Silva, the sophomore forward from Gabon who was given the gargantuan task of guarding him under the basket.
Fourteen minutes into the game, Silva rose to block Karnowski’s shot and made contact with Karnowski, who fell to the floor like a well-axed Douglas fir. No foul was called, and while he writhed in pain, the Gamecocks pushed the ball up the court, with P. J. Dozier feeding McKie for a 3-pointer that tied the score at 31-31.
Karnowski was helped to the sideline with a sore right elbow and a poked right eye, leaving Gonzaga, which had by then gotten 6 points and 4 rebounds from him, with a hole in the middle. Collins, a 7-foot freshman forward, filled it immediately. He contributed three rebounds, including two on the defensive end, to go with 2 points and a blocked shot in a frenetic stretch over the next 2 minutes 30 seconds to help Gonzaga to a 45-36 halftime lead.
By then, Karnowski was already in the locker room. He could not open his right eye. But those missed games from last season were enough for him. He was back in the lineup at the start of the second half.
“The doctor said I’m good to go, so I was just real happy about it,” he said.
Twice in the tournament, South Carolina had stormed back from halftime deficits, and it would be no different against Gonzaga. The first two times, Thornwell was the spark. This time it was Silva who led the charge as the Gamecocks tied the game at 65-65 and then took the lead on two free throws by Rakym Felder.
“That just showed the heart of a lion,” Few said, adding, “It took everything we had to hold on and come back.”
Cultivated though it has been, Gonzaga’s offense did have to deal with a dry spell. The Bulldogs stalled when Karnowski’s teammates tried too often to force the ball inside to him, leading to turnovers that the Gamecocks turned into points at the other end.
But it was a storm the Bulldogs could weather. Karnowski had 7 points in the second half to finish with 13. His understudy, Collins, had a sensational second half, with 6 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.
“We did a really good job, I thought, of just sticking together,” Karnowski said. “That’s what we did the entire season. We don’t have 37 wins for nothing.”
As Few and a handful of his players made their way up the steps to the interview-room dais, the moderator announced, “Gonzaga has arrived.”
It just took longer than perhaps Few would have expected.
“To be playing the last game of the year is crazy cool,” he said.
An earlier version of this article misstated Gonzaga’s lead at halftime on Saturday. The Bulldogs led South Carolina 45-36, not 42-36.