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.