Frank Martin has preached all season about the potential of his young team.
His prophecy is starting to come true as his Gamecocks produced their most complete performance of the season Saturday to win their third straight game.
Senior Maik Kotsar led South Carolina with 21 points and 11 rebounds as the Gamecocks beat Missouri 76-54 at Colonial Life Arena. Jermaine Couisnard added 15 points and six assists, while AJ Lawson had 13 points and seven rebounds.
South Carolina improved to 13-8 overall and 5-3 in the SEC with its third straight conference win.
The Gamecocks shot 51 percent from the floor and the Carolina defense was outstanding, holding Missouri to just 33 percent shooting. The Gamecocks scored 22 points off 17 Missouri turnovers.
“The guys were really great today. Everybody played phenomenal and we got stops on defense and that led to our offense," Kotsar said. "We were locked in on defense and the crowd was really behind us and we were able to stop their runs."
Head coach Frank Martin was thrilled with the defensive effort.
“We swarmed to the ball and we were disciplined and we didn’t commit all those bad fouls," he said. "We have to eliminate those fouls, and when we do we have a chance to be a good basketball."
Kotsar had his 12th double-figure scoring game of the season and his second double-double.
"Kotsar was really the difference," Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "He puts a lot of pressure on you when he is making shots and making plays. And on defense, he did a good job of helping out."
Kotsar had a strong start to the season, but had struggled of late, scoring just 14 points in a four-game stretch before scoring 10 Wednesday night at Arkansas. Head coach Frank Martin had been pushing his big man to step up again.
"Maik played the best game he’s played here," Martin said. "His toughness and aggression was the best I have ever seen. ... When he plays aggressive, he’s a really good player. I’m really happy for Maik. He’s a senior playing his tail off to help our team."
If he can sustain it, Kotsar's play bodes well for the Gamecocks.
"If Kotsar is able to have production as a big, they are as good as anybody," Missouri's Martin said. "He is a difference-maker."
Frank Martin was also happy with the play of Couisnard, who continues to provide leadership at point guard. He was 6-of-12 from the field and matched his season high with six assists.
"Somebody had to take a step forward in leadership … he has taken that responsibility," Martin said. "He’s uplifted us so now you are seeing guys play a lot more aggressive on offense and defense, which is giving us a chance to play better."
Carolina led 39-26 at the half and held a steady double-digit lead through the first nine minutes of the second half. Kotsar, who had nine first-half points, continued to dominate the paint. He had a dunk off a feed from Couisnard early in the second half and his hook shot with 13 minutes remaining put Carolina up 51-36.
Missouri cut the lead to nine with a 7-1 run with 10 minutes remaining but Kotsar responded again. He hit a pair of free throws and then followed with a mid-range jumper to spark another Carolina run. Jair Bolden's 3 put the Gamecocks up 59-43 with nine minutes left.
Three minutes later, Kotsar hit two more free throws to put the Gamecocks up by 20 with six minutes remaining. Kotsar, a 6-11 senior, got a huge ovation from a big CLA crowd when he left the game with 4:40 remaining.
Couisnard then added a couple of baskets to stretch the lead and Lawson cemented the victory with a dunk with 3:34 remaining for a 71-49 lead.
The Gamecocks were locked in from the start against Missouri, holding the Tigers to just 31 percent shooting in the first half. Missouri was just 2-of-19 to start the game and committed seven early turnovers against Carolina's swarming defense.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, shot 50 percent from the field in the first half. They got eight points early from Kotsar and two early 3s from Lawson to get off to a fast start and lead 21-8 with eight minutes left in the first half.
When Missouri finally started to make a run, cutting the lead to nine, T.J. Moss hit a 3 with 4:20 left to push the lead to 30-15. When the Tigers rallied again, Moss hit another 3 for a 33-20 lead. Couisnard then scored five of South Carolina's last six points of the half for a 13-point lead at intermission.
With three straight wins, Martin is pleased with the progress he sees with his team.
“I told you I liked this team," he said. "… We have guys that have pride, and it’s brought them close together and allowed us to play pretty good right now."