On Notice: Meet the Canadian 'heart' of South Carolina's Cinderella Final Four run

This year's Final Four features a pair of unusual teams.

Both the University of Oregon and the University of South Carolina cut down the nets last weekend as they punched their tickets to the NCAA men's basketball semifinals, which will be played Saturday night at the football stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

The Oregon Ducks haven't reached this stage since winning the inaugural tournament in 1939, while the South Carolina Gamecocks have never advanced this far.

At the centre of their teams' runs is a trio of Canadians — Dillon Brooks, Dylan Ennis and Duane Notice. All are starting and playing prominent roles.

Brooks (16.5 points per game in the tournament) is one of the top scorers for an Oregon team that will try to upset title-favourite North Carolina, while his teammate Ennis (8.5) and South Carolina's Notice (11.0) are key perimeter defenders who also contribute on offence.

"It's a testament that Canada Basketball is growing," says Notice, a senior guard from Toronto. "I know the guys on Oregon and I've grown up playing against them or trained with them. We're still a tight-knit group and we all root for each other.

"At the same time, we're competitors so we relish the [potential] moment of playing each other."

With one more win each, Oregon and South Carolina can make that Canadian hoops dream a reality. 

'Heart' of the Gamecocks

South Carolina teammate P.J. Dozier calls the 6-foot-2 Notice the "heart" of the Gamecocks' defence.

After coming off the bench last season and winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the 22-year-old Notice's on-ball defensive skills as a starter have been a difference maker in South Carolina's Cinderella run.

But while Notice appreciates the high praise, he insists it's not all about him.

"I don't play basketball for awards or accolades. I play to win," he says. "It's a team game.

"The people in my core group — my coaching staff, my teammates — appreciate how hard I work on defence, and as long as they acknowledge what I'm doing then that's all the acknowledgement that I need."

The Gamecocks are known for their hard-nosed style of defence. Yet it wasn't long ago that they were searching for an identity, something to hang their hat on, as the team went 13 years between NCAA tournament appearances before qualifying this year.

That makes the school's run all the sweeter for Notice and his fellow seniors, who remained loyal to the program instead of transferring elsewhere.

"I hadn't lost so many games in my life when I first came here, so it would've been easy for us [seniors] to quit," says Notice. "But just being a competitor, the way my family raised me, and the culture that [coach] Frank Martin was building here has allowed us to stick through it. We appreciate all the fans that have stuck with us and hopefully we can continue to build the culture."

South Carolina's last tournament appearance was in 2004, and its last win in the big dance before this year came in 1973 when future NBA scoring champion and Basketball Hall of Famer Alex English led the Gamecocks to the Sweet 16. 

Even with last year's post-season appearance in the less-heralded NIT tournament, basketball was an afterthought on campus until the Gamecocks stunned the college basketball world by reaching the Final Four as the seventh-seeded team in the East region in the NCAA tournament.

"We were pretty much a football school when I initially came here," says Notice. "For us to kind of rebuild the culture when it comes to basketball, I'm sure a lot of fans appreciate it."

The Dunk

Four years filled with adversity and hard work have come down to one weekend. 

South Carolina can advance to the national title game by upsetting Gonzaga — the top seed from the West region that has lost just one game all season.

On the eve of the biggest game of his career, Notice is trying to embrace the moment — just as he did on a breakaway dunk to seal last Sunday's Elite Eight win over Florida in New York City.

"A lot of things just clicked for me at that moment," Notice says. "My teammates didn't know I could dunk, I haven't dunked in front of my mom or my dad since I was in middle school or high school, and the fact that I had a slam dunk in Madison Square Garden — the Mecca of basketball — one of the world's most famous arenas.

"All those things ran through my head. Not to be cliché, but the dunk symbolized punching our way into the Final Four. It was just something I'll always remember forever."