COLUMBIA — As a freshman, Xavier Pinson set a career high with 20 points against Mississippi in Missouri's third-to-last game of the regular season.
Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena, the sophomore set a new career-high, again against the Rebels, with 32 points in a nail-biting 71-68 Tigers win. The win marked the fourth consecutive conference home win for Missouri (13-13, 5-8 Southeastern Conference).
That game his freshman season had been the only time Pinson scored 20 or more points in college. He has now scored 20-plus in three of his last four.
"I mean, when you watch the shots fall all day, when you're putting the work in in the gym, you should be confident in yourself that you should make every shot," Pinson said. "I felt like every shot I took, I was picturing it as if I was in practice, or in the gym alone working, and I just knew it was going in. So hopefully we can get more days like that."
"For me, it's a win," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said when asked what Pinson's next high-water mark might be. "You might ask him, he might want to go for 40, I don't know. But for me, it's the 'W', just chalk it up and keep moving."
Breein Tyree, who scored 29 points to lead the Rebels, had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation but his open 3-pointer went off the front of the rim. The rebound went to his teammate Blake Hinson, who passed it back out, and Tyree's desperation heave at the buzzer went over the backboard.
Pinson scored all seven of his team's points to start the game, but quickly went to the bench with two personal fouls, including a technical for taunting after a made layup. He didn't score again until the second half, but what a second half it was: 24 points on 6-of-9 shooting, 3-for-3 on 3s, and 9-of-9 at the foul line to help close out Mississippi.
Part of that included two crucial fouls he drew in the final minute: the first on Rebels' center Khadim Sy, 28 feet from the hoop — Pinson broke a tie with a pair of free throws with :59 to play — and the second against KJ Buffen, 93 feet from the hoop, after which Pinson gave the Tigers a 67-63 lead with :45.3 seconds to play.
Mississippi coach Kermit Davis said the scouting report hadn't changed on Pinson based on his performance in the previous three games.
"He played good against us last year," Davis said. "We won here last year and I think he had 20, and six assists. He's a good player, he's fast with the ball, he plays with a lot of confidence."
As Davis said, Pinson plays best with the ball in his hands, using his speed, vision and finishing ability to create looks for himself and teammates at the rim. But when he does get touches in the off-ball guard position, and is shooting 4-of-4 from deep like he did Tuesday, it presents an incredibly difficult choice for defenders: press him, or let him shoot?
"If he's hitting those (3s) like he was tonight, it's almost— in my opinion, it's almost impossible to guard him, because he's so hard to stay in front of," Dru Smith said. "If he's hitting those that consistently, like tonight I know he didn't miss one, that just makes him teams are going to have to try to not let him catch the ball, because if he gets it in his hands it's going to be a very tough cover."
Smith scored 17 points, the only other Missouri player in double figures, but Javon Pickett (seven points, four rebounds, one assist, one steal, one block) and Parker Braun (six points, seven rebounds, four blocks) also made key plays in the second half.
Braun set career-highs in nearly every statistical category, including minutes (24), points, rebounds and blocks. He also had two more electric dunks — one a put-back which was whistled for an offensive foul — and he showed his awareness and athleticism on defense with the blocks.
The Tigers looked to be in control, leading 55-45 with 10:28 to play, but a 10-0 run in less than 90 seconds tied the game, including eight from Tyree, and it extended into a 13-1 run as Mississippi took a 58-56 lead with 6:50 to play.
Pickett answered with a 3 to give Missouri the lead back and the Rebels never regained the lead.
Missouri took sole possession of 10th place in the conference standings with its win, as well as Arkansas' loss at Florida earlier Tuesday night. The Tigers entered the day tied with the Razorbacks and Mississippi (13-13, 4-9 SEC) in the conference standings.
Missouri plays at Arkansas (16-10, 4-9 SEC) at noon Saturday.