Glendale, Ariz. – It started as more of a joke.
The three South Carolina seniors began comparing their final season in the Garnet and Black to NBA legend Kobe Bryant's farewell tour with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Each time the trio went to an opposing arena for the final time throughout the season, they would try and have a memorable performance to go out with.
Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie ended up on the farewell tour of a lifetime to cap their careers at South Carolina.
Nationally, the expectations weren't high for South Carolina when it punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament earlier in March. The Gamecocks were a No. 7 seed in Greenville, and the fun started with a 20-point win over Marquette.
That was the first NCAA Tournament win in 44 years, but it wouldn't stop there. South Carolina upset No. 2 seed Duke in the second round before traveling to New York and dispatching Baylor and Florida to earn a trip to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
The dream ended at the Final Four in Phoenix with a loss to Gonzaga, but the reality of what the Gamecocks accomplished will be remembered and celebrated forever.
"It took a life of its own," McKie said of the farewell tour. "It ended with us here in Phoenix. It's disappointing that we didn't come up with the win, but it's been a heck of a ride."
South Carolina had not even made the NCAA Tournament for 13 years prior to this season, and now the Gamecocks have a Final Four appearance to their name after the team refused to give up game after game.
"I think everyone saw Gamecock basketball on a national stage," McKie said. "They saw what we're about – intensity, passion, toughness, caring about one another, and everyone saw that. That was one of our goals, and we did that."
Thornwell, Notice and McKie joined the Gamecocks when the program was off the map. No one was talking about South Carolina basketball at the time, and head coach Frank Martin was at the beginning of a difficult rebuild.
The three players, two of whom were South Carolina natives and one from Canada, believed in the message from Martin.
"We believed in coach from day one, from the day he stepped in my house and recruited me," Thornwell said. "We stayed at it, we stayed together and we didn't listen to anyone, and we continued to work until we got to this point right here."
The three seniors had a tremendous impact on the players who would come after them. The older players set the foundation for winning, and that made it easier on the newcomers who had the veterans to rely on.
That was something that Thornwell, Notice and McKie didn't have when they arrived on campus.
Freshman Maik Kotsar had to take a couple of deep breaths to steady himself when asked about the impact of the senior trio.
"This year they were pretty much the heart of the team," Kotsar said. "They led us, they showed us what it meant to be a team leader (and) what it meant to be a true basketball player. They showed everyone the way."
"They taught me to never give up, and to fight," Hassani Gravett added.
Martin was asked about the impact this Gamecock team had on the community back in South Carolina, and in one of the more memorable moments of the tournament, delivered a heartfelt, emotional response.
"It's what it's all about," Martin said. "These kids are great role models. There's a lot of young kids that want to be the next Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie, and I don't get to coach them anymore, but they're part of my life forever."
The farewell tour may now be over, but it went from a joke to something incredible. There will be a bond between Thornwell, Notice and McKie, and they'll all be remembered as the players who helped lead South Carolina from irrelevance to the biggest stage in college basketball – the Final Four.
"It makes it amazing and it makes it memorable," Notice said. "This is something that we can talk about for the rest of our lives."
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**