COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)South Carolina forward Maik Kotsar scored 20 points on his Senior Night and pushed the Gamecocks to an 83-71 win over Mississippi State on Tuesday.
The Gamecocks (18-12, 10-7 Southeastern Conference) clinched their fourth winning conference season in five years and breathed life into their flagging NCAA Tournament hopes, which nearly flatlined after Saturday’s loss at Alabama. The Bulldogs (19-11, 10-7) saw a two-game winning streak snapped.
“They really were phenomenal tonight, and with all riding on this game tonight from our standpoint … ,” Bulldogs coach Ben Howland trailed off. “You don’t want to play them.”
South Carolina is still in contention for a top-four finish in the SEC, which would be its fourth in five years, but needs help from Florida, to which it would lose a tiebreaker. Kotsar, A.J. Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant, who threw down two highlight-reel dunks among his 12 points, helped keep the Gamecocks in range.
“I feel like we fought really hard and it was a great way to go out,” Kotsar said. “I feel like confidence is my main thing. Today, I didn’t make a lot of shots, but the guys were encouraging me, helping me out, saying, ‘If you’re open, shoot it.’”
He did, posting a couple of rare dunks and taking advantage of an even rarer fluid offensive night. The Gamecocks’ reputation this year has been a team that fouls too much, goes on severe dry spells from the floor and can’t make its free throws.
On Tuesday, the Gamecocks shot 48.5% still had 23 fouls, only missed five from the line and were the better offensive team.
Bryant and Lawson each had 12 points while three other Gamecocks finished with eight apiece. MSU got 17 points and 16 rebounds from SEC Player of the Year candidate Reggie Perry and 24 points from Tyson Carter, who cooked the Gamecocks with 10 straight points in one second-half stretch.
Yet it wasn’t enough. Kotsar owned the paint, Jermaine Couisnard stroked a big 3-pointer and the Bulldogs dropped a game they had to have for their own NCAA Tournament chances.
South Carolina took control with a 20-0 first-half run, but Mississippi State responded with a 25-9 run to make it a two-point game at halftime. The Bulldogs wilted in the second half.
“To use all that energy, to be down so big and have to come back from that, it was really tough on us,” Howland said.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost their last shot for a Quadrant 1 win. Although they still have a chance of finishing in the SEC’s top four and have a solid NET ranking, their resume doesn’t boast many very notable wins. They’ll have to win their final game and get a couple in the SEC tournament to feel strong about their at-large NCAA Tournament chances.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are clinging to their own slim chance for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. The loss to Alabama the last time out put them right on the precipice but if they win their final game, then notch their 20th win of the season at the SEC tournament, they could sneak in.
South Carolina has hardly ever been a player in the SEC, notching three winning league seasons in the 21 years before Martin arrived.
He has four in his last five seasons.
HE SAID IT
Howland compared playing South Carolina to a root canal two weeks ago. He corrected himself Tuesday, saying it was like a dental implant.
Martin, who developed dry socket once after getting his wisdom teeth removed, appreciated it.
“If playing us hurts that bad, then we need to keep playing that way,” he said.
Mississippi State finishes the regular season at home Saturday against rival Ole Miss. The Bulldogs were pummeled 83-58 in Oxford on Feb. 11.
South Carolina is at Vanderbilt on Saturday, which will be a prelude to returning to Nashville for the ensuing SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks beat the Commodores 93-57 in Columbia but Vandy, with nothing to play for other than sending its seniors out on a strong note, is a classic trap game.
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