Nikko stars as Mizzou comes back from 20 down to beat Georgia
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Nikko emerges as unlikely star of an unlikely comeback

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With 18 seconds remaining and Missouri leading Georgia by two points, the Tigers knew Anthony Edwards would take the shot. The top priority communicated by head coach Cuonzo Martin in the team’s huddle was not to allow that shot to be an open three-pointer, so both Javon Pickett and Xavier Pinson swarmed Edwards around the three-point arc. However, somehow one of the two players fell and took the other to the deck with him, giving Edwards, who led all scorers with 23 points, a free lane to the rim.

“I ran into (Pinson), I’m like, ‘ah man,’” Pickett said. “In my head, I’m like panicking a little bit.”

Edwards, a former five-star recruit and likely lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft, rose to lay the ball off the backboard. Missouri center Reed Nikko, a four-year role player recruited by former coach Kim Anderson, met him at the rim. Nikko spiked the ball out of Edwards’ right hand, off the backboard and into the arms of teammate Mitchell Smith. When Smith got fouled, Nikko unleashed a fist pump and a scream.

“I just started screaming,” Pickett said. “I was super excited for Reed, super excited for our team. He came up with a big play.”

“I was happy,” Nikko said with a shy smile. “I was very happy. Very hyped.”

Reed Nikko scored a career-high 13 points on offense and had the game-winning block on defense in Missouri's comeback win over Georgia.
Reed Nikko scored a career-high 13 points on offense and had the game-winning block on defense in Missouri's comeback win over Georgia. (Jessi Dodge)

Nikko emerged as the unlikely star in an unlikely comeback as Missouri used its size to overcome a 20-point second-half deficit and edge Georgia 72-69. The win brought the Tigers (10-10, 2-5) back to .500 on the season and snapped a four-game losing streak.

The first two-thirds of the game appeared to follow a similar script for Missouri. Even against Georgia’s defense, which ranks last in the SEC, the Tigers at one point went 5:20 without a field goal in the first half. The Bulldogs outscored them 17-1 during that span and took a 12-point lead into halftime. Missouri managed a few fits of scoring early in the second half but couldn’t get a stop. With 13:33 to play, Georgia led 59-39.

Momentum turned when Missouri began to attack the basket. Martin said he stressed all week in the scouting report that the Tigers, who had shot 24.5 percent from three-point range across their past four games, would need to get the ball to the rim to score against Georgia, since the Bulldogs typically switch defenders at all five positions. Yet, in the first half, Missouri shot more three-pointers (16) than two’s (13) and only got to the free throw line four times.

In the second half, Missouri shot 17 two-pointers versus seven threes, shot 13 of 17 from the free throw line and outscored Georgia 20-14 in the paint. During the team’s game-ending 33-10 run, the Tigers scored 27 of their points in the paint or at the free throw line.

“Normally when teams switch five different ways, something has to give,” Martin said. “There’s a straight line drive or there’s a post up. … You just gotta drive the ball, put pressure on the defense, force them to collapse, now you can make plays.”

At halftime, Martin challenged his guards to drive to the rim and his bigs to take advantage when switched onto smaller defenders. With three-point specialist Mark Smith sitting out the entire second half due to a lower back injury, Pickett and Pinson answered the bell in the backcourt. Pinson scored all 16 points in the second half, including hitting six of eight free throws. His most impactful play came when he wrestled the ball away from Edwards for an offensive rebound and putback that gave Missouri the lead for good with 37 seconds left.

But perhaps more important to opening up the offense, Nikko, who until Tuesday had never scored in double-figures against SEC competition, became a dominant force in the low post. The senior scored 11 points in the second half. He scored on pick-and-rolls, putbacks and post-ups and even dished an assist to fellow big Mitchell Smith when he was double-teamed late in the game. His 13 points and 26 minutes played both represented career highs, and Missouri out-scored Georgia by 16 when he was on the floor.

“The second half, we needed him to have a presence offensively, because he’s a better scorer, in my opinion, that what he shows sometimes,” Martin said. “I think that’s just him recognizing that I’m a good player, I’m physical, I’m strong. ... You have to continue to take advantage of drives, but also post-ups when there’s a smaller defender, and I thought he did a good job of that in the second half.”

“(Martin) definitely made a point at halftime, just saying when the switch happens, post up, be big,” Nikko added. “And there was a few times I got fouled or got to the rim, or there was one, too, where I was able to assist Mitch because they helped in.”

During postgame interviews, Nikko’s teammates beamed when asked about his contributions on the offensive and defensive end. Martin called him “battle-tested” and “a guy that’s committed to the program.” Yet no one was more effusive in their praise than Georgia coach Tom Crean. Before he even reached his seat at the podium, Crean launched into praise of Nikko, saying “Reed Nikko totally changed the game.”

“When you’ve got a guy that plays that hard and that’s that efficient, that’s totally selfless and about what it needs to be for the team, that’s a very valuable thing,” Crean said. “And in the second half, he got them a lot of confidence in my mind.”

True to his soft-spoken, role-playing nature, Nikko deferred credit to his teammates and coaches. But even he couldn’t deny that scoring a career-high on one end of the floor and blocking a future pro to save the game on the other felt pretty cool.

“Probably be fair to say since I put on a Tiger uniform,” Nikko responded when asked when was the last time he felt he had played this well. “I think it’s probably up there.”