Maik Kotsar wasn’t in the building Dec. 19 when South Carolina lost to No. 3 Virginia. He was away from Colonial Life Arena, recovering from a concussion suffered at practice a day earlier.
Frank Martin was frustrated that evening. His Gamecocks had lost the third of what became a four-game losing streak. A tough non-conference schedule was reaching its peak and a veteran forward’s absence wasn’t helping matters. He referenced Duke’s Zion Williamson playing through a bloody nose in a game against Princeton and compared it to Kotsar’s situation.
“Zion, blood flow and everything, was a lot more intense than our guy,” Martin said. “But that dude’s made out of steel and went back out. My guy’s concussed and he’ll be out for who knows, 97 days or something. I have no idea.”
Martin ended up being off by just a few months. Kotsar, after missing USC’s loss to Clemson on Dec. 22, returned on New Year’s Eve for a win over North Greenville. On Tuesday, as Carolina faced its first ranked opponent since UVa, Kotsar made sure to make up for lost time.
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He scored a career-high 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds, had two assists and a block as the Gamecocks outlasted No. 14 Mississippi State, 87-82, in overtime at Colonial Life Arena.
“I think the concussion helped him,” USC senior guard Hassani Gravett said with a grin.
“Yeah,” a smiling Kotsar responded, “it did.”
South Carolina, 5-7 before January, is 2-0 in SEC play thanks to a junior who might have changed the narrative on his season with one incredible performance.
“Really proud of Kotsar,” Martin said. “I’ve been fighting him, in a good way, to believe in himself. So I’m really happy that he played with that aggression and that confidence.”
Since a breakout showing (12 points) in an Elite Eight win over Florida in 2017, Kotsar’s been relatively underwhelming. A 6-foot-11, 264-pounder who doesn’t venture too far from the basket, Kotsar shot under 43 percent as a sophomore and averaged fewer than five rebounds a game.
The Estonia native admitted his flaws over the summer, telling reporters at the SC Pro-Am, “I’ve learned I still have ways to go.”
Eleven games into his junior season, Kotsar was averaging 8.2 points and 5.1 rebounds, numbers that basically matched his 2017-18 campaign.
But Kotsar on Tuesday drove and kicked to Tre Campbell for a 3 on Carolina’s first possession. On its third, Kotsar hit a short jumper. By halftime, he was at eight points. He had taken nine shots, already good for the fourth-most of his season.
“Early in the game,” Martin said, “he missed some shots. And I didn’t say a word to him because he kept shooting. In the past, when he misses a shot, he stops.”
Kotsar finished with 18 field goal attempts and had 10 makes, both career highs. Nine of his points and three of his rebounds came in the final 2:03 of regulation and overtime.
A baseline 10-footer with 44 seconds left in OT gave the Gamecocks a 3-point lead.
“Some guys score 25, but they score a lot like in the middle section of the game and then they disappear,” Martin said. “That dude made a big-time step-down jump shot from the baseline, big-time offensive rebound tip-in, made his free throws.
“I mean, all that with the game in the balance.”
Kotsar “killed us,” said MSU coach Ben Howland.
“Bottom line is we probably should have been doubling him in the post, too,” Howland said, referencing the Bulldogs’ special attention to Chris Silva. “He was a problem for us, scoring around the basket, getting second shots. He made all his little short jump shots where he was spacing out, including a big one on the right baseline late in the game.”
The Gamecocks, who host Missouri (9-4, 0-1) on Saturday, are now seeking their second 3-0 SEC start in two years. Kotsar will be seeking an encore.
“Maik can be a guy that can make a lot of money playing basketball,” Martin said. “He’s 260 pounds, moves his feet, can run, goes in the weight room, he’s as strong as an ox. He’s not a lights-out shooter, but this year he’s worked at becoming a good shooter.
“I just want him to be aggressive, man. ‘You’re too big and strong, too talented, too mobile to be passive.’
“I hope that this gives him confidence. When teams want to really, really focus on Chris like Mississippi State was, it gets real hard to have to deal with both of them dudes in there. And hopefully it’s something that he can continue.”