David Cloninger

Kotsar plays vital role in win over Georgia

Freshman wall or foul trouble or homesick, Maik Kotsar just wasn’t the same player.

The freshman forward remained in the starting lineup but wasn’t as aggressive, or as productive, as he had been at the season’s beginning. It happens a lot to first-year players, and as USC coach Frank Martin pointed out after midseason, Kotsar had to be here for the holidays by himself. He couldn’t get to his native Estonia to see his family while most of the other players got to go home.

Martin harped on Kotsar to get it back, whatever he had early. It had to be there. It didn’t just disappear.

“I’ve been on Maik for three weeks now, relentlessly,” Martin said. “He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t pout. That’s why he’s still in the starting lineup.”

And why he’ll stay in, after an impactful performance in Saturday’s win over Georgia.

Kotsar only scored seven points with seven boards and fouled out in 22 minutes. Yet the energy was back. The hustle. The refuse-to-lose mentality.

Kotsar got the ball at the elbow early in the game and took off down the lane, driving for a layup. He missed, but that shot had been missing since Christmas.

He called for the ball in the post against Yante Maten, finishing with hook shots. He was all over the rebounds, tying up Georgia’s players for jumpballs. He was a walking floor burn afterward after stretching that 6-foot-10 body for any piece of basketball he could.

The Gamecocks needed that, with their offense hampered by Georgia’s length and their defense sliding. It seemed like every time the Bulldogs made a run, a Kotsar play that wouldn’t show up in the stat sheets got USC the ball back.

He wouldn’t say why, but admitted he’s been struggling.

“The past month has been tough,” he said. “My teammates kept me going and it went from there. My mindset was just to win.”

USC did, and while Justin McKie clinched the game with his free throws and USC’s three starting guards supplied the bulk of the points, Kotsar’s play stood out.

That will be needed over the next eight games.

“We don’t win today without him in the second half,” Martin said. “He played with tremendous courage.”

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