NEW YORK — When Maik Kotsar was yelling at Sindarius Thornwell to give him the ball early in the game, the South Carolina senior knew his freshman teammate was ready to play.
As the Gamecocks battled in New York for a trip to Phoenix, Kotsar was battling for something more.
“I just wanted to win the game,” Kotsar said. “I knew that if we win, it is going to be the Final Four and that my family is going to be there if we win. That’s about it.”
The first-year USC forward hasn’t seen his family in almost a year. They are in his native Estonia, where they can watch his games online, but they have not seen him play in person during his South Carolina career. That will change come Friday’s Final Four, as his family is coming to Phoenix.
As Kotsar and his teammates fought through a tight game against Florida for a trip to the Final Four, the freshman forward had a little more on his mind. And he was instrumental in locking up the first Final Four berth in school history, scoring 12 — many crucial hoops — after having only nine through the first three NCAA Tournament games.
The 6-foot-10 Kotsar came out of the gate hot, calling for the ball in the post and playing aggressively. He scored four early points, but his biggest contributions came in the second half.
Kotsar scored four points on a layup and a baseline jumper then gave South Carolina its first lead after halftime with a tip-in with 11:28 to play.
His biggest bucket came last, as he trailed Thornwell down the court after the senior stole the ball. Thornwell sought to get to the hoop, but had Florida’s Devin Robinson in the way and set up to take a charge. He turned, dropped the ball back to Kotsar just inside the free-throw line.
“I turned around and Maik was the only person there,” Thornwell said. “I passed it to him, thinking back it out. Then he made it and I was like, Yes!’ Maik stepped up and made a play.”
Kostar simply said, “I felt like it was going in, so I decided to shoot.”
It did and the points gave South Carolina a four-point lead and the final push it needed to break away after almost 15 minutes of playing in a one-possession game.
“Maik was tremendous,” senior guard Duane Notice said. “We have been wanting him to play like that all the time. When he’s aggressive, he’s great. He’s a freshman. At the same time, he’s playing 30-plus minutes as a freshman. He’s getting used to it. He’s going to continue to develop to be a great player for our program.”
But Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, Kotsar was only thinking about the next game.
“It means a lot to have my family there,” Kotsar said. “I haven’t seen them for 10 months or so. It means a lot.”