It was an ugly foul ridden game late Monday night but North Carolina prevailed to become the redeem team and enjoy their one shining moment as March Madness Champions. And yet even as the championship game started it seemed that no matter who the winner was 2017’s March Madness story line had already been written. Once the confetti stopped falling and the nets were cut down South Carolina still remained March’s real winners. The reason why? An unexpected run with a familiar face at the helm.

Frank Martin coached Kansas State to four NCAA Tournaments in five years before leaving to coach South Carolina. The move seemed odd to many basketball pundits at the time because leaving K-State for South Carolina seemed like a step down in program caliber at the time. When Martin took over in 2012, the team that hadn’t won a tournament game since 1973 and hadn’t even made an appearance since 2004. From the start it was clear that Martin was going to be building a program essentially from scratch. The year before Martin began his tenure the Gamecocks went 10-21 with only 2 wins in conference. The Frank Martin era didn’t start off much better with a 14-18 season. But Martin persevered and South Carolina’s record improved every year.

9971703-ncaa-basketball-ncaa-tournament-east-regional-south-carolina-vs-florida-850x560

Then 2017 happened. The team started the season coming off of their first winning season since the 2008-2009 season. They continued that momentum to propel themselves to an 8-0 start to the season. Even after an early exit in the SEC tournament the Gamecocks were sitting pretty at 22-10 with a good chance at making it to the big dance. Selection Sunday confirmed the Gamecocks were back with a 7 seed bid in the east bracket.

The rest is the beauty of March Madness. A dominant first round win over Marquette set the stage for a matchup with a blue-blood program and tournament favorite in Duke. After a 88-81 victory where the Gamecocks scored 65 second half points they were immediately the tournament Cinderella team. In the eyes of the world the team had already achieved tournament success, but that didn’t stop them from trouncing Baylor and beating fellow SEC foe Florida to punch their first ever Final Four birth. South Carolina lost a hard fought Final Four game against Gonzaga but by then their legacy had been etched in stone.

That was just their on the court success. Frank Martin put the exclamation mark on the team’s run elsewhere. In two specific moments during post-game press conferences Frank Martin showed his softer side by praising a child reporter for asking a question one day, before tearing up over the hard work of his players and the prospect of not coaching his seniors next year following their Final Four loss. This postseason run also helped Martin snag a well-deserved 2017 coach of the year award.

History will show North Carolina as the 2017 NCAA tournament winner but everyone who watched all the madness will remember South Carolina as the real winners. Welcome back to the big stage Gamecocks. Sit back, get comfortable and stay a while.