WASHINGTON, D.C. — They played like they believed.
Maybe the NCAA Tournament really could be a new season. Maybe the corrosion that had crumbled the regular season and the conference tournament could be polished away in a week. The shine was back.
Trouble was, it only lasted for four minutes.
“We got off to a great start,” Missouri junior guard Kim English said.
Leading 9-2 with 16 minutes left to play in the first half of its 78-63 loss to Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Washington D.C, the Missouri men’s basketball team had done exactly what it said it wanted to.
It wanted to play better defense. Cincinnati hit only one of its first four shots and committed a turnover.
It wanted to get the ball to its big men. Forwards Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers scored the team’s first six points.
It wanted to rebound better. Missouri had five before the Bearcats had two.
But more than anything, the Tigers had wanted to put together a complete game.
But Cincinnati's Darnell Wilks made a 3-pointer. Then Yancy Gates made a layup, the first two points of his eventual 18. And as sure as those shots went in, so did the realization that Missouri’s hot start was no more than a tease.
At halftime, Missouri coach Mike Anderson and his players walked into its Verizon Center locker room trailing the Bearcats 39-28. The shine was gone.
And when the Tigers emerged on their way back to the court, there was no laughter, no words of encouragement, just the rhythmic bouncing of a basketball echoed by concrete walls.
“I hear a basketball,” a security guard said, springing into action to escort the team.
But the sound of the bouncing ball was not as fast and happy as it was in the first four minutes of the game.
No one gave up in the second half. No players surrendered. But the shine stayed away.
“Of course we fought to the end, but I just think we had more in us,” Missouri junior guard Marcus Denmon said following the loss. “I feel we underachieved. We didn’t reach as far and as deep as we could have.”
The shine tried to come back in the last 10 minutes of the game. The bench that had failed Missouri in the first half came to life when the starters' production disappeared.
Freshman guards Phil Pressey and Ricky Kreklow tried their best. Pressey provided a flurry of five points and a steal in a matter of 30 seconds that caused Missouri fans to hit their feet. And when he took a seat on the bench, Kreklow picked up the cause, hitting a 3-pointer, but airballed the next.
The performance from the two freshmen were glimpses of a shine that looks to become greater in seasons to come, but on Thursday, no one could steal back what the Bearcats had taken from Missouri after the first four minutes.
At the end of the night, in a teary-eyed locker room, the starters felt like they let down the reserves.
“I just really feel bad as one of the leaders of this team for going out the way we did,” Denmon said.
And the reserves felt like they let down the starters.
“I just feel bad that I couldn’t get him (Denmon) a win like he couldn’t get me a win," Pressey said.
Missouri junior guard Kim English saw both sides.
“A loss like this is such a mix of emotions,” English said. “We played so hard but the shots just didn’t go in. I’m not happy for us, but I’m excited for the future, seeing Ricky and Phil play so well on such a big stage. They got a taste of the Tournament.”
That taste will have to last Missouri until next season. This one ends with a 23-11 record, the same record the team ended with last year.
But this one didn’t feel as good. The team had visions of a shinier season.
“Expectations that we had on ourselves, those weren’t reached at all,” English said.
“That really hurt ... We tried.”