Maik Kotsar vowed Thursday that, as his team's lone senior, he would step up and provide the leadership Frank Martin is looking for.
For most of the first half, Kotsar was having trouble living up to that promise. Passive on the offensive end of the floor, the 6-11 forward was scoreless most of the first half.
Then, with three minutes left in the half, he drove the lane and scored his first points. Moments later he drew a foul and converted a free throw to tie the game.
Fueled by his strong first-half finish, Kotsar scored eight of South Carolina's first 15 points of the second half to give his team the lead in a 74-69 win over Gardner-Webb in the second round of the Cancun Challenge.
The Gamecocks bounced back from a loss to Boston University Tuesday to improve to 4-1 as they head to Cancun, Mexico, where they could have matchups against two quality teams in Wichita State and West Virginia.
AJ Lawson and Jermaine Couisnard led South Carolina with 16 points each, while Kotsar added 11 points, a team-high six rebounds and two big hustle plays at the end of the game.
South Carolina led 32-29 at the half but Gardner-Webb started the second half on an 8-2 run to take a 37-34 lead. But Kotsar scored six of South Carolina's next eight points to put the Gamecocks back on top.
After another G-W rally, Kotsar's jumper put South Carolina up 47-45. That sparked a 10-2 run to put the Gamecocks up 55-47.
The defending Big South champions would not go away, however. The scrappy Bulldogs, who made the NCAA Tournament last year, rallied to tie the game at 65 with 2:30 remaining.
That's when Couisnard took over, driving the lane for a basket and drawing a foul. His three-point play put the Gamecocks up 68-65. When G-W took a 69-68 lead, he did it again, making another driving layup and completing the three-point play to put South Carolina back in front 71-69 with 1:02 remaining.
“I just ran my lane and the ball came back around. I felt like it was a great shot and I took it," Couisnard said.
"Give Jermaine credit, he sensed it and he drove it and he scored," head coach Frank Martin said. "It was the only time in the game we made a contested layup."
Kotsar then made the two plays of the game. With the shot clock winding down, Lawson had to heave a long 3-point attempt. He missed the shot but Kotsar tipped the rebound to Bolden, who was fouled with 15.4 seconds left.
"That was a big play," Lawson said. "He did a lot of hustle things throughout the game and that was a key one right there."
“That was a big-time offensive rebound tipping that ball," Martin said.
After Bolden made one of two free throws for a 72-69 lead, Kotsar defended a long 3 by Gardner-Webb with 1.9 seconds left and Lawson added two more free throws for the final margin.
Gardner-Webb contained Kotsar in the first half but Bulldog head coach Tim Craft said the 6-11 big man made a big impact in the second half.
“His size and ability to post and seal us in the paint [helped them]," he said. "He’s a lot bigger than us and caused us some problems. He got a couple in the paint and then made a couple of jumpers that were big buckets for their team."
Lawson said Kotsar's leadership was key.
“He was talking a lot and trying to encourage us more and doing what seniors do to be a leader," he said. "Today I felt like he did that a lot to help us throughout the game and during key plays of the game he was talking to us and trying to keep us positive. He had been through situations like this for four years so he knows what to do in those situations."
For the second straight game, South Carolina got off to a slow start and trailed until taking the lead with 1:17 left in the first half. Both teams struggled from the field but G-W hit four 3s early to hold a slim lead.
The Gamecocks were in the midst of a 2-for-11 cold spell when Kotsar sparked the late run with a driving layup followed by a free throw to tie the game at 25. Justin Minaya then gave the Gamecocks their first lead with a pair of free throws and Jermaine Couisnard followed with a 3 for a 32-27 lead.
South Carolina shot just 39 percent in the first half but locked down its defense and the Bulldogs finished the half 1-for-8 and shooting just 32 percent.