By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Frank Martin has been pushing junior forward Maik Kotsar.
Pushing, pushing and pushing. Pushing him to play with the confidence and aggression he knows is inside the 6-11 junior.
He finally saw it Tuesday night as Kotsar led South Carolina with 25 points and nine rebounds as the Gamecocks upset No. 14 Mississippi State 87-82 in overtime.
“Really proud of Kotsar,” Martin said. “I’ve been fighting him to believe in himself. I’m really happy he played with that aggression and confidence.”
Kotsar, a key player as a freshman on the Final Four team in 2016-17, struggled early in the season, averaging just 8.2 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes per game. He broke out Tuesday night against one of the best teams in the country, hitting 10 of 18 shots, including three big shots in overtime.
“I got my confidence going [tonight],” Kotsar said.
Kotsar had just eight points in the first half and was passive early in the game, pulling up and passing on shots on drives to the basket. But in the second half, he hit shot after shot in a tight back-and-forth game.
He scored six points early in the second half as South Carolina forged ahead 50-45. With Mississippi State leading 73-72 with two minutes remaining, Kotsar caught a pass from Chris Silva and laid it in to give the Gamecocks the lead. He completed the three-point play for a 75-73 lead.
He put Carolina ahead by two early in overtime and then grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a put-back to put the Gamecocks up 83-79 with 1:39 remaining. His base-line jumper with 44 seconds remaining gave Carolina a three-point lead and sealed the game.
"Kotsar killed us," Mississippi head coach Ben Howland said. "He really hurt us in the second half on the glass.”
“That dude made a big-time jump shot, grabbed a big offensive rebound, made his free throws. We need him to keep growing,” Martin said.
Martin said it’s been a challenge to get Kotsar to be aggressive, especially on the offensive end of the floor. His previous career-high in points was 16, which he matched earlier this year against Michigan.
“He’s not an aggressive personality. He’s passive and he’s happy being like his freshman year, just the fifth guy,” Martin said. “But he has so much more ability than that. Getting him to just believe in himself, that has been the challenge. … I’m happy he stayed aggressive. That’s what I have been begging him to do.”
“I saw the Maik I knew he can be and the Maik we have been asking him to be,” senior guard Hassani Gravett said. “We need this from him more, for sure.”
Though he started slowly Tuesday night, Kotsar kept shooting and driving to the basket. He was just 3-of-9 in the first half before hitting 7 of 9 shots in the second half.
“He kept shooting,” Martin said. “In the past, he stops and passes up good shots. … I’m really happy for him. He deserved to have a game like this against a really good team. Hopefully it’s something we can continue.”
Kotsar was one of three veterans who came up big for South Carolina, which improved to 7-7 and 2-0 in the SEC. Gravett added 17 points and seven rebounds, while Silva had 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
That’s the kind of performance and leadership Martin needs from his three veteran leaders. All three played key roles on the Final Four team two years ago.
“Their guys that played on that Final Four team all stepped up and had big games for their team,” Howland said.
Silva and Gravett have had two big games in a row, leading South Carolina to a win over Florida Saturday.
“Chris is remarkable in what he is doing right now, the demanding of his teammates,” Martin said. “Maik has gotten real good with that. He has taken a step forward. Those three guys who I have been real hard on have taken big steps in the last month.”