Safford emotional after last game for Missouri men's basketball team

Friday, March 18, 2011 | 12:46 a.m. CDT; updated 11:13 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 18, 2011
Missouri forward Justin Safford tries to muscle up a shot between Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates, left, and forward Justin Jackson on Thursday night during the Tigers' 78-63 loss to the Bearcats in the NCAA Tournament in Washington D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With three minutes left to play, Justin Safford began to wipe his eyes.

The game, the Missouri men's basketball team’s season and Safford’s career with the Tigers were coming to an end.

Safford, a senior forward, sat on the bench and watched as his teammates failed to narrow Cincinnati’s large lead in an eventual 78-63 loss to the Bearcats on Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament in Washington D.C.

For the final five minutes, Safford didn’t remove his towel from his face. As he watched the game, he didn't show any emotion, didn't acknowledge anyone and didn't move the towel from its spot covering his mouth and nose.

Until Cincinnati guard Yancy Gates made a 3-pointer to give Cincinnati a 70-55 lead. Then Safford covered his face.

When he pulled the towel about 10 seconds later, his eyes were beginning to fill with water. Noticing his teammates emotions, junior guard Kim English leaned over and whispered in Safford's ear.

“I gave him words of encouragement,” English told reporters after the game. “I just told him he did everything he could do. He played hard, he made his shots, he battled, he got steals and he got rebounds.”

English then paused, turned away and took a deep breath before continuing.

“Oh man. I just told him he did everything he could, and I was sorry,” English said. “I was sorry I didn’t help him at all today.”

In the final minutes, Safford kept to himself and refused words of encouragement. He stayed distant during timeouts. When the Missouri players huddled around coach Mike Anderson, Safford stood several feet back, turning his head from the huddle to the crowd at the Verizon Center then back to the huddle.

In his final collegiate game, Safford finished with six points.

“Justin was a great senior for us this year,” Missouri freshman guard Ricky Kreklow said. “... day-in and day-out, he would work harder than anyone else in practice. It was just so easy to follow his example because everyone wanted to match the intensity he was giving.

“Everyone’s kind of upset that tonight didn’t go the way we planned. Everyone puts so much into this emotionally, that when it doesn’t go your way, you’re pretty harsh on yourself since we try to hold ourselves to high standards.”

Safford declined to talk with the media after the game.

After the final buzzer went off, Safford took his towel, laid it across his shoulders and, after shaking hands with Cincinnati, walked with his head down back into Missouri's locker room one final time.

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gene sally March 18, 2011 | 2:48 p.m.

Many years ago Then MU football coach Frank Broyles told the local Rotary Club that he loved MU that he would be there forever. Two weeks later he went to Arkansas They were just fininhing the back stadium road tied to 63 South Wags suggested it be named Broyles Highway as it was the faster way OUT OF TOWN Please Coach Anderson Take IT and the Arkansas job. Street BB no fundamentals wild shots even wilder passing Nilly Willy We have two large population areas a great fieldhouse WE can attract solid players Go home Coach We can do better

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 18, 2011 | 3:16 p.m.

It's very difficult for some of us who hold degrees from NCAA Division II and Division III colleges and technical institutes to grasp the mentality of those from Division I schools. Will the world REALLY come to an end if dear old Podunk University doesn't make it to the Final Four? It seems unlikely.

(Report Comment)
chris peters March 18, 2011 | 3:57 p.m.

Coach A, thanks for bringing our program back from the ashes. You've had success before and it will continue to follow you here. Our best days are ahead of us. One thing I love about your teams is that they aways fight. Your guys have heart and win or lose, that's honorable and admirable.

(Report Comment)
Drew Officer March 18, 2011 | 5:25 p.m.

I can't help but believe if Anderson's style was actually sound, why isn't it the style of choice? It seems more like a pickup game at the playground, to me. I'm not saying that he can't have success, but that likelihood is limited, since it appears that players best fitting his style are pretty scarce.

Yes, I was hoping he'd take the Arkansas job, but with Alden in place, the jobs of both Anderson and Pinkel are safe. Scheduling teams most likely to help pad the Wins column is Alden's method of creating false impressions, and as long as fans are content with that, there's no reason to expect to see MU playing for a national championship.

As Mr. Smith said, the world will still turn if MU never plays in the big spotlight, but, based on the amount of money fans have to put out nowadays for seats, a greater expectation for success should be in order, as I see it.

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