For the first time all season, NBA scouts were in attendance at Mizzou Arena.
They were there to watch Anthony Edwards, of course, Georgia’s superstar freshman, an elite scorer and a future top NBA draft pick.
Missouri has no such player; a go-to guy that can get a bucket during one of its extended scoring droughts that have become commonplace this year.
Down 20 points with 13 minutes left in the game, it appeared Georgia’s star power would be too much for Missouri. Edwards was dazzling and already had 21 points as the Tigers looked hapless on offense and were unable to stop the Bulldogs in transition.
With their backs against the wall, sharpshooter Mark Smith sitting out the second half with a lower back injury and the season seemingly headed into a full-on tailspin, the shorthanded Tigers mounted a miraculous comeback thanks to their bench — five players scored in double figures — to defeat Edwards and the Bulldogs 72-69.
Fittingly, senior Reed Nikko rejected Edwards at the rim with nine seconds to play to seal the game for the Tigers. Missouri’s lone senior, a backup for the majority of his career, an unassuming, unheralded big man, snatched the game from the hands of a future NBA lottery pick.
“In the second half, Reed Nikko took momentum from us,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said as he showered praise upon the Missouri big man. “You have to recruit the Reed Nikko’s of the world because they don’t grow on trees. I’m just saying that when you got a guy that plays that hard, that’s that efficient, that is totally selfless and about what it needs to be for the team, that’s a very valuable thing.”
Nikko scored a career-high 13 points, including two big dunks, and after sitting much of the first half in foul trouble, was the key cog in the Missouri (10-10) machine, regaining control of the glass during the 27-6 run that brought the Tigers back ahead.
“ ... My job has always been to give energy, just play as hard as I can. I was able to do that tonight,” Nikko said.
Just seven minutes into the game, all three of the Tigers’ most played big men — Nikko, Mitchell Smith and Kobe Brown — had picked up two fouls, causing Martin to have to go small. In their absence, Georgia (11-9) took control of the glass, outrebounding the Tigers by eight in the first half.
With Missouri’s bigs off the floor, Edwards quickly heated up. The forward gave Georgia an early 27-17 lead after a dominant two-possession stretch. On the first, Edwards split a double team and avoided a charge with an acrobatic finish. On the next possession, he broke down his defender and found a cutter for a layup, beating his chest as the Martin called a timeout.
By the time Missouri next scored, the Bulldogs had completed a 17-1 run and would take a 42-30 lead into halftime. At this point, Missouri looked lost on offense. The Tigers couldn’t seem to finish anything around the rim, missing multiple layups and shooting just 23% from 2-point range in the first half.
Turning around its finishing to shoot 58% from 2-point range in the second half changed the game for Missouri. Combined with shooting 10-for-43 from long range (43.5%), Missouri’s offense looked much improved from what it has been over the recent four-game losing streak.
Seeing more shots go through the net on the offensive end allowed Missouri to set up its defense, a major factor that helped the Tigers allow only 27 second-half points. Georgia excels when playing at a fast pace. When the Bulldogs are forced to survive in the halfcourt, the offense struggles — Georgia only scored four FG in the last 12 minutes and was outscored 33-10 over that stretch as Missouri came back to steal the game.
As the Tigers slowed down the pace, they had to find a way to score in the halfcourt as well. Sophomore guard Xavier Pinson was the key to making that happen. Along with Javon Pickett, Pinson seemed to put an increased emphasis on attacking the basket in the second half, scoring all 16 of his points in the period. Missouri scored just 13% of its points from the charity stripe in the first half but the increased aggressiveness bumped that number up to 30% in the game’s closing period.
Pinson had a couple of critical plays including a massive 3 that cut the lead to five, but his biggest was a steal after Georgia grabbed a defensive board. With the game tied with 37 seconds left, Pinson stripped the ball and immediately went up for a spinning layup over bigger defenders that put Missouri ahead for good — comeback complete.
Edwards finished with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double but struggled down the stretch as Missouri forced him to settle for 3-pointers, on which he shot just 3 of 12.
Pickett was the primary defender on Edwards in the second half and after switching onto him, only allowed the freshman to score a single basket.
The sophomore from Belleville, Illinois, scored 11 points as well, and his energy helped spark the comeback. Mitchell and Dru Smith were the other Tigers to finish with double figures, scoring 12 and 16 points, respectively.
Missouri will look to win two straight conference games for the first time all season when it plays at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia, South Carolina.