Through many low points this season, the most invigorating moments for Missouri men’s basketball have been clear in the past couple months.
The road win over Temple after the devastating home loss to Charleston Southern. The Braggin’ Rights win over Illinois, which currently is tied atop the Big Ten Conference standings. The lights-out shooting performance against Florida that propelled Missouri to a Southeastern Conference victory nearly three weeks ago.
Tuesday’s 20-point, second-half comeback victory over Georgia may prove to be more powerful a factor than any of those previous moments, and it's a matter of timing.
“It’s big for their confidence,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said of his team breaking its four-game losing streak. “When you lose games, you get tough losses, human nature you start doubting yourself, you lose confidence. So you need something to go your way to get back in that balance and you take care of the task at hand.
“... When you get in league play, there's no margin for error. Everything matters because everybody can play and somebody has a way to exploit you. You just have to be sound and ready.”
Before the Tigers downed the Bulldogs 72-69 at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday night, Missouri had just one conference win and some ugly losses to boot.
Missouri scored 45 points against Mississippi State and let potential wins over Texas A&M and Tennessee slip away.
That made the 13:33 mark of the second half against Georgia so painful, and by the end of the night, so possibly important to the rest of Missouri’s season.
At that moment, projected 2020 NBA Draft lottery pick and Georgia freshman phenom Anthony Edwards swished a 3-pointer to dig Missouri into a 59-39 hole.
The Bulldogs, however, made only two non-layup field goals the rest of the game and one in the final 12 minutes.
In the first 28 minutes Tuesday, Missouri fell below Martin's defensive expectations by allowing 59 points to the Bulldogs.
The rest of the way, Missouri allowed just 10 points in an effort that created perhaps the loudest decibel level inside Mizzou Arena this season.
Missouri (10-10, 2-5 SEC) pulled back within 10 with 8:54 left on a Xavier Pinson floater in the paint.
The Tigers were back within five for the first time since there was 9:02 left in the first half after a Pinson 3-pointer with just more than four minutes remaining in the game.
Missouri regained the lead with 2:20 left in regulation on a pair of Reed Nikko free throws but surrendered it once more 18 seconds later on a Donnell Gresham Jr. putback.
Martin chose to take two timeouts before the Tigers’ next offensive possession ended. With 91 seconds to go, Dru Smith sank a shot from eight feet while getting fouled to put MU back on top.
The Tigers didn’t fall behind again.
After Georgia’s Toumani Camara made the game all square again at 69 with 1:01 to go, Pinson made one more basket, the game-winner, on an offensive rebound where he wrestled the ball free from Edwards with 37 seconds left.
“I saw (Edwards) come down with it kind of loose and I just poked at the ball and got it loose again,” Pinson said of his game-winning play. “So I just tried to grab it before he could get it. I don't even know how to explain it, but I just snatched it from him kind of, put it back in as fast as I could.”
Of course, MU needed a defensive stop to complete the comeback. Georgia head coach Tom Crean called two timeouts before the Bulldogs got off their next shot attempt.
Edwards was the likely shot-taker, and Missouri set up defensively to prepare for that. As Edwards received a pass from Gresham, Tiger sophomores Javon Pickett and Pinson got tangled and both fell to the floor, giving Edwards a clear lane to the rim.
That was until Nikko made up the difference, blocking Edwards’ shot attempt into the backboard, the ball eventually landing in the hands of Mitchell Smith, who was quickly fouled by Georgia.
Smith made one of two free throws to give Missouri a three-point lead with eight seconds to go.
The Bulldogs advanced the ball up the floor and gave it to Edwards for a game-tying 3-point attempt at the final buzzer, but it hit the front rim.
Crean gave a lot of credit to Nikko for Missouri’s comeback.
“No matter where you're at, no matter where they're at, momentum is always up for grabs, and in the second half, Reed Nikko took momentum from us,” Crean said. “... We didn't have any way that we were able to really stem it, even though we were right in it obviously. Reed Nikko changed the game, he changed the energy of the game for them.
“You have to recruit that right. You have to recruit the Reed Nikkos of the world because they don't grow on trees. I don't know him, I'm just saying that when you've got a guy that plays that hard, that is that efficient, that is totally selfless and about what it means to be for the team, that's a very valuable thing. And then in the second half, he got them a lot of confidence, in my mind.”
Missouri made the comeback without junior standout Jeremiah Tilmon, who is still out with a stress fracture in his left foot, and guard Mark Smith, who sat out the second half with lower back discomfort.
With 11 SEC games remaining, the Tigers are 11th in the conference standings with their next game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the road against 10th-place South Carolina.
While Missouri's fortunes haven’t been stellar in conference play, the comeback over Georgia could be the turning point it needed.