At about 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon, a South Carolina fan, who was about to see a dream come true, turned to a friend in The Garden and asked, “Why do they call this the Mecca of college basketball?”
Four hours later, he would have an answer.
At exactly 5 p.m., just as the words ‘New York, New York,’ were filling The Garden like helium swells a balloon, South Carolina coach Frank Martin snipped the final piece of net off the rim and waved it around it his head.
His wife, Anya, a Queens native wearing a child-like grin on her face, nodded her head in approval. Martin’s mother, Lourdes, who raised Frank and his sister Luly, who owns two restaurants in Cobble Hill, had tears streaming down her face.
Martin has often called himself a dreamer these last few weeks as South Carolina has lived the ultimate NCAA Tournament dream. But even Martin couldn’t have harbored thoughts this fanciful.
Or maybe he could have.
“It’s all lining up, just the way Frank said it would,’’ Anya told The Post. “When the draw came out and we were going to Greenville, [SC] then when we advanced to New York, he kept saying, ‘It’s all lining up.’’’
After the Gamecocks were done cutting down the nets following their 77-70 rock fight win over Florida in the East Region championship game, Martin was using esoteric words such as ‘surreal’ to try to explain the emotion of getting South Carolina to its first-ever Final Four.
There was nothing surreal or subliminal about this game.
The Gamecocks trailed 40-33 at halftime because they were not playing their dream-wrecker defense and they weren’t competing on the glass.
These are first degree felonies in Martin’s black-as-shark eyes.
Two minutes into the second half, after Florida’s Kevarrius Hayes scored on a putback, he bellowed “Hey! All five of you better box out!”
Florida had outrebounded South Carolina, 17-11, in the first half and made 7-of-12 three-pointers. By game’s end, South Carolina won the boards, 34-31, and Florida didn’t a make a three in the second half.
“I feel like our team is the most underrated team in the country, outside of me,’’’ said South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell, who scored 26 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the East Region.
“Our team’s the most underrated team as a whole. I just felt like plays needed to be made down the stretch, and I stepped up.’’
The Gamecocks, the No. 7 seed in the East, will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West Region Saturday in a Final Four semi-final game. Neither program has been here before.
No. 3 Oregon will meet No.1 North Carolina in the other semi-final, meaning the Gamecocks can continue their narrative as the most underrated team.
“All lining up,’’ said Anya when asked about next week.
In order to fully appreciate the present, we must consider the past. South Carolina hadn’t been in the Big Dance since 2004 and hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973.
Francisco Joe Martin was being raised in a hardscrabble Miami neighborhood at the time by Lourdes, who had fled Castro’s Cuba only to have her husband flee her and their two children.
Dinner out was Wendy’s or Burger King – every two weeks. So yes, Martin has a tough skin, a hard head, and a tenacious team.
He said Anya turned him down seven times before agreeing to go on a date. But they had so much in common – hard-working minority families that were never looking for a handout, just a foothold.
Which is the ultimate New York story.
“New York’s a special place to me, my sister, her husband, their children, they live in the Cobble Hill area in Brooklyn,’’ Martin said. “They run a family, and little family restaurants [Fatty Daddy’s Taco & Layla Jones]. They work every single day, the way my grandmother and my mother taught us to work. My wife’s family, same story as my family.
“And then to be up on that ladder cutting that net and fulfilling a life-long dream, and hear ‘New York, New York’ at a place that’s special to me, special to my family, it’s pretty powerful.’’
It sure is. The Gamecocks have a chance to write the most unpredictable NCAA Tournament championship ever.
Villanova won the 1985 title as a No. 8 seed, but the Wildcats are a basketball school that played in what arguabley was the nation’s toughest hoops conference that season.
N.C. State won the 1983 title as a No. 6 seed, upsetting Houston. That was stunning because the Cougars, aka Phi Slama Jama, were 30-2 entering the game but the Wolfpack had been hardened by playing in the ACC.
South Carolina is known for its baseball, football and women’s basketball programs. It plays in the SEC, where football isn’t a religion, it’s a fervor.
But men’s basketball has New York roots. Former St. John’s coach Frank McGuire left New York, New York and coached the Gamecocks from 1964-80. He also coached North Carolina from 1952-61. For the first time ever, both Carolinas are in the Final Four.
The Garden is the Mecca because this is where college basketball lives and breathes. It is where players and coaches from around the country dream of playing in. It is where dreams come true.
The National Invitation Tournament, which was the marquee tournament before the NCAA used its TV deal and revenue to become the Big Dance, holds its Final Four here.
CSU-Bakersfield and Georgia Tech will play one semi-final game Tuesday night followed by TCU and Central Florida. The winners meet Thursday night for the title.
When TCU beat Richmond, 85-69, Wednesday night for the right to go to New York, Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon, who coached many a game at The Garden while at Pittsburgh, said it was one of the best moments of his coaching life.
While he spoke, Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ was playing in TCU’s Schollmaier Arena.