COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Maik Kotsar, a senior and the last player left from South Carolina's Final Four run of 2017, had his best game of the season. Gamecocks coach Frank Martin says a big assist goes to freshman point guard Jermaine Couisnard.
Kotsar had a season-high 21 points and 11 rebounds in South Carolina's 76-54 victory over Missouri on Saturday.
Martin praised Kotsar's aggressiveness, drive and hustle in finishing with his second double-double this season and fourth of his career.
But it's the youthful leadership of Couisnard that's lifted Kotsar and his teammates during a stretch where the Gamecocks (13-8, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) have won three in a row and five of their past six SEC games.
"I really feel like that's given our team a chance," South Carolina's Martin said. "And helped Maik, which he needed."
Kotsar, at 6-foot-10, is talented and relentless. But confrontation? That's not his game, his coach said.
Having Couisnard, a tough-minded leader who's unafraid to call out teammates for subpar play, has unified the team during SEC play, Martin said.
It certainly did for Kotsar, who made his first seven shots and had eight defensive boards in the opening half as the Gamecocks built a double-digit lead.
Kotsar also had four of South Carolina's nine blocks — the team's best showing in SEC play this season.
"We got stops," Kotsar said. "And we got confidence on offense."
Missouri (10-11, 2-6), which rallied from 20 points down to beat Georgia last Thursday, cut a 16-point lead to 52-43 with 11 minutes left. But Kotsar hit two free throws and a short jumper to start a 9-0 run and restore the Gamecocks' comfortable margin.
"Maik played his best game in a uniform here," South Carolina's Martin said.
Couisnard finished with 15 points and AJ Lawson 13 off three 3-pointers for South Carolina.
Xavier Pinson had three of Missouri's four 3-pointers and led the Tigers with 12 points.
Missouri has lost five of its past six games.
Pinson said the Tigers must do a better job hitting the shots they get. They finished at 32.8% (19 of 58), the fifth time in six games they've shot less than 40%.
"For the most part, we got a lot of shots that we liked," Pinson said. "We've just got to knock them down."
South Carolina has played strong defense during its recent run and that continued against Missouri.
The Gamecocks held the Tigers to 1-of-10 shooting on the way to an 11-3 start. Things only got worse for Missouri after that.
South Carolina scored on five of six possessions in the opening period to stretch things to 30-15 on T.J. Moss' 3-pointer.
The Gamecocks forced nine turnovers and had eight blocks the first 20 minutes. Kotsar was a huge part of South Carolina's defense with eight defensive rebounds, four blocks and a steal in his 10 minutes.
The Tigers were without second- and third-leading scorers Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon for this one. Smith came out in the second half of Missouri's last game with lower back issues and was out of the lineup at South Carolina.
Tilmon has missed the past eight games with a stress fracture in his left foot.
THE BIG PICTURE
Missouri: The Tigers will struggle without the firepower of juniors Smith and Tilmon in the rotation. The two have combined for nearly 20 points and nine rebounds a game this season.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are surging at the right time in order to make a run in the SEC. They have several winnable games this month and any hope of getting to the NCAA Tournament rests on them following a winning January with a more successful February.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said both Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon remain day to day. But without them, Martin has to have sophomore Pinson start at the point instead of having him come off the bench, a role the coach likes having him in. "Everybody can come into the game and be ready," guard Javon Pickett said.
South Carolina's Kotsar dunked home a basket, something he's not always comfortable doing despite being 6-10. Kotsar likes pulling up for short jumpers or spinning for a hook shot. And while he's had success, teammate Couisnard hopes there are more rim-rocking shots ahead. "That was a good dunk," Couisnard said with a smile.
Missouri goes to Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
South Carolina plays at Ole Miss on Wednesday night.
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