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Gamecocks hoops run memorable for THA coach

  • South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell (0) reacts to a 3-point basket during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Gonzaga, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
  • Leon Etheridge

South Carolina’s run to the men’s Final Four and the women claiming the school’s first NCAA basketball national championship captivated many Gamecocks fans in Jasper County, including Leon Etheridge, a 2005 Thomas Heyward graduate who is a Rebels assistant baseball coach.

Etheridge, who played baseball at Coker College, said he’s always been a Gamecocks fan; his grandfather had season tickets for the football team.

His love for football spread to other sports, including basketball.

Etheridge is thrilled with South Carolina’s women, who beat Stanford 62-53 in the national semifinal and Mississippi State 67-55 to win the championship.

“It’s a big deal for the South Carolina fans who support every sport passionately,” Etheridge said. “The attendance numbers for women’s basketball throughout the entire season prove that.”

The Gamecocks have led the nation in women’s attendance for the last several years, drawing more than 14,000 a game to Colonial Life Arena in 2016.

The women were led by A’Ja Wilson, a first-team All-American, who attended Heathwood Hall, which like Thomas Heyward is a SCISA school.

Etheridge said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has spearheaded the team’s successful surge.

“The women have been good for a few years,” Etheridge said. “Dawn Staley turned that program around.”

Etheridge first started taking a serious interest in the men’s team in 1997 when it went 24-8 and won the SEC regular-season crown.

This season he missed watching just two games and was in Greenville on March 19 when the seventh-seeded Gamecocks upset No. 2 seed Duke, 88-81.

Etheridge was engulfed in a partisan crowd that included North Carolina fans happy to see Duke fall. The crowd was electric, especially after Duane Notice passed to Chris Silva for an emphatic dunk that ignited the Gamecocks.

“I’ve never heard anything like that in an arena in Columbia,” Etheridge said. “South Carolina fans show up for basketball games pretty well. I just never heard anything like that. I compare it to the football game when South Carolina beat Alabama in 2010, that’s what the feeling was like.”

Etheridge, who also teaches at THA, was impressed with the Gamecocks’ regular season, but was surprised they earned a No. 7 seed. He figured they could beat Marquette, but the Duke game would signal the end. But South Carolina was just getting started.

The Gamecocks beat Duke then topped Baylor (70-50) and Florida (77-70) to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

The Gamecocks’ dream of a title ended, however, with last Saturday’s 77-73 loss to Gonzaga in a national semifinal despite rallying from a 14-point deficit.

The Gamecocks’ achievements adds to the state’s great run, including Coastal Carolina’s baseball national championship last June and Clemson’s football crown in January.

South Carolina’s men and women’s basketball success — capped by the women’s title — helped solidify the state’s status as a collegiate sports powerhouse.

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