It was a game that looked so far gone for Missouri. A game that looked like a loss to Georgia waiting to happen. A game that looked like it could drop the Tigers to 13th in the Southeastern Conference, a spot head coach Cuonzo Martin once said his team would only fall to if the SEC ended up being the best conference in the country.
It was the same tale that’s been told for Missouri time and again since SEC play started... until it became a game again.
And Xavier Pinson and Reed Nikko were at the center of it.
The duo combined for 27 points in the second half, and were the driving force behind a comeback for the ages as the Tigers outscored the Bulldogs 33-10 over the last 13:33 on Tuesday to overcome a 20-point Georgia lead.
“I thought our guys just did a great job of attacking, attacking, attacking, putting pressure on them, forcing those guys to block shots, forcing the officials to make calls,” Martin said. “And we did that in the second half, and it just changed the game for us.”
Pinson had been a non-factor for most of the first 25 minutes. In just five first half minutes, Pinson had no points on 0-of-2 shooting, one personal foul and two turnovers. It felt like another first half performance that would force Martin to leave him on the bench, and if not for a lower-back injury to Mark Smith that kept him out of the second half, Pinson might not have even checked in when he did at the 14:06 mark.
Prior to the gigantic run to end the game, Pinson made one of two from the line to make it a 56-39 game. Who knew that, for the rest of the night, Pinson would outplay potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick Anthony Edwards?
“To me, the small dude (Pinson) changed the tempo of the game,” said Edwards, who admitted he’d never heard of Pinson — or really any of the Missouri players — prior to the matchup.
Pinson scored 15 of his final 16 during the game-ending run, displaying a killer-instinct when driving to the basket reminiscent of the late Kobe Bryant. He hit two 3-pointers, a layup, a jumper and five free throws over the final 13 minutes.
When Mitchell Smith took a 3 with the game tied 69-69 with :42 left that bricked off the rim, it felt like Mizzou Arena went silent quickly. But then, in a scrum of big bodies, Pinson came up with the ball and hit the eventual game-winning layup.
“That’s just X’s grit. He’s from Chicago. He gets out the mud, for real,” Mitchell Smith said. “That boy grinds, and he doesn’t back down from anybody. I love that about X. I’ll go to war with him everyday.”
Pinson’s decision-making was also sound, and though he did have a turnover, he matched it with a beautiful assist that set up a Nikko poster.
Speaking of Big ‘Sota, the dirty work he provided along with his season-high 13 points is what Georgia coach Tom Crean attributed to the major shift in momentum.
“Momentum is up for grabs, no matter where it is, no matter where you’re at, no matter where they’re at. Momentum is always up for grabs,” Crean said. “And in the second half, Reed Nikko took momentum from us, and we didn’t have anybody, we didn’t have any way that we were able to really stem it.”
Nikko wasn’t much more of a factor than Pinson in the first 20 minutes. He scored two points and grabbed two rebounds but picked up two fouls that forced him to sit for a large chunk of the half.
Once the teams came out of the locker rooms for the second half, though, Nikko was a force.
He was everywhere on the defensive end, and he was a major reason why the Bulldogs’ starting big Rayshaun Hammonds went scoreless and grabbed just two rebounds in 33 minutes. And in the second half, his 11 points, three rebounds and two assists were just as important as Pinson’s production in the comeback victory.
That’s not to mention his starring role in the biggest play of the night.
Right after Pinson made the go-ahead layup, Edwards once again got the ball in his hands. Edwards played all 40 minutes and had scored 23 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out three assists, and when Javon Pickett and Pinson collided at the top of the key, Edwards had a clear path to the bucket.
But instead of the star player making the game-tying basket, there was Nikko to swat the shot from behind, preserving the lead and preserving the win.
“It’s up there (in favorite moments of his career) for sure,” Nikko said. “The biggest thing is that block led to a win. That’s the best part about it.”