ATLANTA — Half an hour after the final buzzer, Jordan Clarkson sat in a folding chair outside his locker room stall in the Georgia Dome.
At his feet was a camouflage, military-style backpack. It’s a souvenir Clarkson kept from September, when Missouri coach Frank Haith took his team on a two-day team-building trip to southwest Missouri to be trained by the National Guard.
Back then, the possibilities at a power conference school seemed endless for Clarkson, the 6-foot-5 combo guard who was the beacon of hope for Missouri basketball, the heralded transfer from Tulsa, Okla., who would help the Tigers snap a streak of three consecutive seasons without an NCAA Tournament victory.
But Friday, like his Tiger teammates that remained in the locker room, the star junior guard was quiet. He tried to grasp the magnitude of the opportunity his team just wasted after being blown out in the second half en route to a 72-49 loss to No. 1 Florida that afternoon.
What seemed possible six months ago while carrying 50-pound sacks on long hikes and firing M16s with the National Guard was no more — the Tigers’ loss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals burst its NCAA Tournament bubble.
Like his teammates, a solemn, defeated look occupied Clarkson’s face. He sat with his legs spread and stared at the room’s opposite wall. The bottoms of the cutoff gray sweatpants he wore stretched just past his knees. There was no talking between teammates, no music playing outside of headphones. Just brief banter between some players and members of the media.
“We were tied with the No. 1 team in the country; we liked our chances,” Clarkson said of the team’s halftime mindset. “We knew we were right there.”
They were, after a Ryan Rosburg dunk beat the first-half buzzer, sending the teams back to their respective locker rooms tied at 29. They were still, with 10:03 remaining in the game, after countering a 7-0 Florida run to start the second half with a 7-2 run.
Then Keanau Post was late to defend the basket, allowing Florida forward Will Yeguete to make a layup. SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin stole Post’s ensuing inbounds pass, headed for the corner and made a 3-pointer. A missed long-range attempt from Jabari Brown on Missouri’s next possession gave way to another Florida basket.
The score was 45-36 Florida, 9:16 remaining. It took 47 seconds to kill the Tigers’ season.
Four stalls to the left of Clarkson, Rosburg relived the season’s unraveling.
“You know that they’re going to have moments like that because they’ve got so many talented players,” Rosburg said of the Gators. “You need to control those runs, make sure it doesn’t turn the whole game around, which I think it did today.”
Clarkson got up, grabbed the backpack he’d lugged around since September and walked toward the exit.
In a corner of the room, senior guard Earnest Ross tried to explain what went so wrong, so quickly for the Tigers.
“They came out in the second half a little more fired up than us,” Ross said. “It was something we had to be able to match, and I don’t think we did a great job tonight of doing it, which explained the result.”
Clarkson stopped to ask a member of Missouri media relations a question. He remained in the room, standing against the wall, his face buried in his hands. This wasn’t the final chapter to the season that the star guard envisioned six months earlier.
“Now it’s kind of set in that we just … we’ll see on Sunday how it goes," Clarkson mumbled. “We didn’t want the season to end like this, so we’ll see on (Selection) Sunday.”
Clarkson left the locker room defeated.
He trudged down the hallway, head down, and reached the lobby. Rather than continuing straight toward the exit, he turned right and looked toward the court.
Up a runway and one left turn later, Clarkson stared at where his dreams of experiencing the NCAA Tournament and potentially his collegiate career — if he declares for the NBA Draft — ended.
Less than a minute later, Clarkson headed back down the runway, slowly, backpack right where it’s been so many times before.
A Georgia Dome security guard approached Clarkson, congratulating him on his 11-point performance against Florida and wishing him luck in the future.
Another person greeted him. It was a team staffer, whom he put his arm around, and the two continued toward the lobby.
“It’s tough,” he told her.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.