After Missouri finished off a 20-point comeback win over Georgia on Jan. 28, Bulldogs coach Tom Crean was adamant that schools need to recruit the Reed Nikkos of the world, because the Reed Nikkos of the world are game-changers.
Nikko believes that. He believes he can change the game anytime he’s on the floor, and during the Tigers’ game Saturday against Arkansas, he set out to prove that. Though foul trouble limited Nikko and he left the court for good with 3:01 left in the second half (to a rousing ovation from the 11,439 in attendance), Nikko was still the driving force for Missouri.
Nikko collected four offensive boards in the first two minutes of the game to set the tone. He just barely missed a poster dunk after getting fouled at the 15:24 mark, but a minute later, he threw down a monster.
In fifth annual Rally for Rhyan game, named after Rhyan Loos, daughter of former Missouri assistant Brad Loos and 9-year-old survivor of stage-four neuroblastoma, Nikko — who had Rhyan’s name on the back of his pregame warmup — gave his team the early boost it needed.
Xavier Pinson also dropped a game-high 24 points after another electric second half performance, Javon Pickett chipped in 14 points and the Tigers outlasted the Razorbacks 83-79 in overtime to bring home their fifth straight Rally win.
“This is the game that means a lot more than just basketball,” Nikko said. “... To be able to get this win was really important to us.”
Missouri’s offensive woes didn’t magically go away Saturday. In the first half, the Tigers shot 10-for-31 from the field (32.3%) and 1-for-8 from deep (12.5). Misses on easy layups and bricks on open 3s, which have been commonplace this season, were a big part of that.
But where Missouri really found its groove early was on the offensive glass. Nikko had his first four in the first two minutes and finished the half with five, and five other Tigers grabbed an offensive board. So while the players weren’t making shots, they were hitting the glass hard enough to give themselves extra chances to get a bucket.
At the 13:09 mark, Pickett made a layup to give Missouri a 16-9 lead. Until Parker Braun made a jumper with 7:14 left in the half, the only field goal the Tigers could get came on a dunk by Mitchell Smith, which, you guessed it, was a putback after a miss.
Missouri hasn’t been a team that can be counted on to score, which is why its defense has been so important. The Tigers have only been able to really outshoot a team once in Southeastern Conference play, and whenever they’ve let opponents score points in bunches, they’ve gotten blown out.
But at least for the first half, they were able to limit Arkansas’ most dangerous weapon.
Mason Jones came into the game leading the SEC in points per game with 20.7 on 44% shooting, but in the first half, Jones scored just six and made only 1-of-6 field goals. For a team that has little margin for error when it comes to letting good scorers get rolling, Missouri did as good a job defending Jones as it could’ve been asked to do.
“I just think defense is pride. He’s a talented player. Anytime you score 30, 30, 34, 40 in a game, that’s pride,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “... I think that’s what’s in you as an individual player, it doesn’t matter what a scouting report is, you don’t allow a guy to just score the ball like that.”
Jones started the second half strong, though, scoring six over the first 7:11 of the half, and a Reggie Chaney 3-pointer tied the game at 45-45 with 11:54 left to play. By the time that 11:54 expired, the teams were still tied and the game headed to overtime.
While overtime is exciting, the game itself was anything but. Fifty combined fouls were called during the first two periods, and at one point in overtime, Tray Jackson was the only player on the floor who wasn’t in danger of fouling out.
“It is what it is,” Jackson said. “They’ve got to call whatever they see, but it is a bit frustrating seeing them call that when you’re actually playing in it and watching it and knowing that’s it’s not a foul call.”
It was ugly, but it also boded well for Missouri when at the 3:26 mark, Jones fouled out on a charge drawn by Mitchell Smith.
Without their opponents’ top scorer on the court, Missouri was slowly able to build its lead to as high as seven and pulled away.
Heading into the game, the Tigers didn’t just want to win. They also wanted to keep their unbeaten streak in Rally for Rhyan games alive. Fifty-nine fouls later, Missouri did just that.
“That’s the plan, never lose for (Rhyan),” Pinson said. “Hopefully we can keep that tradition going forever.”