COLUMBIA — Justin Safford proved Laurence Bowers’ prediction true.
Safford had struggled in his past four games. The senior forward had made only four of his past 21 shots. To make matters worse, Safford had been sick. He missed practices this week because of a cold that has spread to some of his teammates. The bug kept him from the team's media day on Thursday, but during that time, Bowers was confident his teammate would get back on track.
“I’m quite sure he’s not the happiest guy right now," Bowers said. "Justin’s a senior. He’s strong-minded. I look forward to him bouncing back."
In his 22 minutes on Saturday, Safford quietly accumulated 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting and a free throw and also grabbed six rebounds in the Missouri men's basketball team's 84-61 victory over Oklahoma at Mizzou Arena.
Missouri’s bench scored more than half of the Tigers' points, and the crowd cheered the reserves for their efforts. Steve Moore's baskets drew the traditional chants of "STEEEVE!" from Missouri's student section, and Columbia's hometown favorite, Ricky Kreklow, caused murmurs of excitement to ripple through the arena every time he touched the ball.
Meanwhile, Safford scored quietly and consistently. No one chanted his name, but he didn't seem to mind.
He checked into the game seven minutes in, inspected his jersey to make sure it was properly tucked in, then scored his first two points quickly and easily off of a Marcus Denmon miss. Safford grabbed the ball and returned it to the basket immediately to cut Oklahoma's lead to four.
Safford's scoring came on a variety of high-quality shots from various distances inside the 3-point line. Some shots were close-range, and some were just inside the arc. Safford posted up, faded away and got to the free-throw line. More than once, he found himself open as a byproduct of screening an opponent.
“He thinks about other guys first,” Michael Dixon, a teammate, said. “He does a lot of good screening, and when you screen, you get yourself open.”
All of Safford's shots were on line, and only three were not successful.
But, there was no celebration in Safford’s walk, no smile, no sign that he was out of his slump. That’s not Safford’s style.
He is more likely to be caught jumping from the bench to congratulate a teammate than strutting down the court after one of his own swishes. Safford is more vocal in the huddle when Missouri coach Mike Anderson is scribbling out a play than he is when he scores.
Late in the first half, a timeout was called after Safford just scored to reach six points. He walked toward the huddle with his head up and eyes straight forward. Bowers wouldn’t let him make it unimpeded. He caught up with his teammate and heartily slapped him on the back. The gesture was brief, but it carried a meaning.
On Thursday, Bowers said he remembers having times when his confidence was low. His teammates, especially Safford, were the ones who picked him up. On the way to the huddle, Bowers returned the favor.
“I was just happy for him,” Bowers said. “It was great to get his confidence up.”
Safford said his confidence was never down. Instead, he said he was frustrated with how he had been playing recently. Either way, Safford's play on Saturday was deserving of a pat on the back. And because Safford isn't the kind of player to do it himself, Bowers made sure to do it for him.