By Andrew Kahn
South Carolina trailed national champion favorite Duke by 10 points early in the second half on Sunday. But the Gamecocks made a run, punctuated by two Chris Silva dunks. The sophomore received a pass ahead of the pack and threw it down to cut the deficit to one, then put South Carolina ahead with a baseline alley-oop from Sindarius Thornwell that whipped the Greenville crowd into a frenzy. The 7-seed Gamecocks won, 88-81, to advance to the Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden. They’ll face 3-seed Baylor on Friday (7:29 pm ET, TBS).
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Appearing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2004, South Carolina would not have pulled off the upset without Silva. He scored 10 points against Marquette to earn the program’s first Tournament win since 1973. Against Duke, the Gamecocks scored just 23 points in the first half but exploded for 65 in the second. Asked what clicked offensively in the second half, Thornwell said, “We got the ball inside. Chris did a great job of posting up and we just fed him. … Chris was the difference in the second half. He showed up big time for us.”
Silva scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half. In addition to the two dunks, he hit an elbow jumper and twice finished at the rim in traffic with his left hand. For the game, he made all five of his foul shots, grabbed 10 rebounds (including five on offense) and blocked two shots in 30 minutes.
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said Silva played like a “grown man” in the second half, which was especially important since he felt his team settled for threes early in the game. “Chris was very nervous,” he told reporters after the game. “He had opportunities in the first half to score and he missed shots, he fumbled balls. But he stayed with it. To start the second half we made it a point to throw it to him, and he played strong. I’m unbelievably proud of him.”
Silva played organized basketball for the first time in high school in New Jersey, after arriving from his native Gabon at age 15. He put a lot of muscle on his 6’9” frame and became a top-150 prospect. Silva, now listed at 223 pounds, averaged 10 points and 5.8 rebounds this season, while shooting 55 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free throw line, all major increases from his freshman year.
“I’m harder on Chris Silva than anyone on our team because he can be so good and he’s just learning the game,” Martin said after the Duke game. “I have a lot of respect for Chris, the way he accepts coaching every single day.”
Silva is one of the most foul-prone players left in the Tournament, averaging 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes. He had three against Duke, four against Marquette, and had fouled out of 10 games this season. If South Carolina wants to continue its impressive run, it is critical Silva stay on the floor. He not only provides interior offense to complement the perimeter scoring of Thornwell, P.J. Dozier, Duane Notice and Rakym Felder, but his rim protection is a big reason South Carolina ranked fourth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Baylor has a lot of length and inside scoring, but if Silva’s second half against Duke is any indication, the sophomore is up to the challenge.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com, and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.