COLUMBIA — If it wasn’t over when Keyshawn Bryant lost a ball he stole that turned into the go-ahead layup, and it wasn’t over when Trae Hannibal threw an outlet pass directly to Tennessee’s John Fulkerson, it couldn’t be over as Maik Kotsar swept his hair out of his eyes and lined up a free throw.
Never mind that South Carolina is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country and had already bricked 13 on Saturday. Never mind that Kotsar was so bad at free throws last year, missing 23 of 28 in a late-season stretch, that he would avoid getting fouled because he wanted no part of the line.
Kotsar’s a senior, the only remaining player of that glorious 2017 Final Four team, and is having a fantastic season. So he took a deep breath, lined up his shot …
And won the game.
“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking much,” he said after swishing four foul shots in the final 21 seconds to deliver USC an improbable 63-61 win Saturday. “I just knew I had to make them.”
His heroics clinched a game coach Frank Martin unapologetically labeled lucky and strengthened the Gamecocks’ burgeoning NCAA Tournament hopes. The Gamecocks (16-9, 8-4 SEC) are in the top four of the conference and have won eight of 10. The final six games are murderous, but with upsets happening every night in a nutty season nationwide …
But they didn’t get here by looking at what’s ahead or hanging their heads over a still-stupefying loss to Stetson that put them in this spot. They simply did what Martin’s teams always do, which is play better at the end of the season.
“We worked really hard to become who we’ve become over the past month, and that’s what saved us tonight,” Martin said.
USC nearly lost in a mirror image of how it lost 56-55 in Knoxville on Jan. 11. The Gamecocks again couldn’t avoid the whistle, committing 24 fouls, and continued their season-long trend of being awful at the free-throw line.
They also couldn’t stop Fulkerson, who ripped them for 15 points and 10 rebounds in Knoxville and had a career-high 25 points on Saturday. Yet in a bit of cosmic alignment, Fulkerson got the ball after Kotsar’s first set of free throws and spun into Bryant, who otherwise played a miserable game.
Fulkerson was called for charging, after the charge he took from A.J. Lawson clinched the game at Tennessee. Kotsar made his two shots, Martin intentionally fouled with a three-point lead, and Charleston native Josiah-Jordan James couldn’t convert his last look at the tying basket after rebounding his own intentionally missed free throw.
P.J. Dozier, Sindarius Thornwell, Chris Silva and Tre Kelley were welcomed back during a first-half break. It was a homecoming for four legendary players.
Dozier’s presence was curious, considering his name was linked to the NCAA Notice of Allegations that was delivered to USC Thursday.
Approached by the Post and Courier for comment, Dozier responded, “Not yet.” Pressed on it, Dozier said he may release a statement through himself, not his attorney, in a day or two.
Martin, as he did when former assistant coach Lamont Evans was arrested in September 2017, was forthcoming. He said that Dozier would speak with USC leadership any time he was asked and that he had zero concern that the allegations would result in anything negative toward USC.
“It does not involve any of our student-athletes, it does not involve our staff,” Martin said. “There’s no wording there that’s compatible there with the wording used with the other schools. I know I don’t cheat and I don’t condone cheating, and I work for a man (athletics director Ray Tanner) that doesn’t cheat and doesn’t condone cheating.”
Freshman forward Jalyn McCreary wasn’t on the bench for the second half after scoring eight points with four rebounds in the first. Martin said he had a head injury and was ruled out for the game.
Martin didn’t know a prognosis going forward as he had not yet visited with McCreary or the medical staff.
The Gamecocks tip off at Mississippi State at 9 p.m. Wednesday.