GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For four and a half minutes, Missouri fans could see into the future.
A transition took place Saturday night as Missouri was held off 85-72 by top-seeded Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Down five points to with just over 15 minutes remaining in the game, coach Mike Anderson pulled all but four of his starters.
And that’s when the magic started, as reserve forwards Justin Safford and Keith Ramsey took over.
It began with gritty stuff. Ramsey swatted a layup attempt by UConn guard A.J. Price out of play. Price stepped back and took a 3-point shot off the inbound pass, but missed. And there was Safford boxing out 7-foot-3-inch Hasheem Thabeet for the rebound.
Safford outworked him and forced Thabeet to commit his third foul of the game. Then it was time to get to work on offense. The sophomore and junior scored Missouri’s next eight points, a stretch where the Tigers took their first lead of the game at 50-49.
The sneak peak into Missouri’s basketball future was capped off by a one-handed dunk by Ramsey that rattled the gym and tied the score at 52.
Anderson brought his veterans back in a little more than a minute later. They kept it close for the next five, but then UConn started making big plays.
A two-point deficit turned into six in a matter of 40 seconds. With five minutes remaining, Anderson put his leaders back on the bench.
Seniors Leo Lyons, DeMarre Carroll and Matt Lawrence watched from their seats as their backups tried to send Missouri to its first ever Final Four.
“We were trying to win. We were trying to win,” Anderson said after the game. “It is not about hurting. It is about winning. That's what we were trying to do. Those guys that were out there playing, I thought they had it going on.”
But with every punch Missouri threw, Connecticut countered with a harder one.
“They came in fighting, scratching and clawing, and if you are going to go out, that's the way you want to go out, fighting, scratching and clawing, giving yourself a chance,” Anderson said of his team.
The Huskies never slipped. They connected on their final nine free throws, draining 26 total throughout the night and ending a completely unforeseen season of success for Missouri.
“We came from nothing, and I'm pretty sure no one expected us to get here except for the guys in our locker room,” Lawrence said. “I have never been a part of a team that was more cohesive than this one. When you got guys doing whatever it takes to win, you are going to get this far.”
And while Lawrence’s emotions spilled out during the post-game press conference, it was about much more than being eliminated from the tournament.
“I know for myself and Leo it has been four years, and this is a great way really to go out, I think,” Lawrence said before pausing to hold back his tears. “But as we got back in the locker room, it was more about -- it was more about those guys that I will never get to play with again.”
Those guys, the 10 Missouri players with at least one more season to play for the black and gold, were upset after the game, but no tears. They seemed inspired by the seniors whose careers had just concluded and excited about finishing a trip down the road that was paved for them.
“They taught me to be selfless, to work hard,” freshman guard Kim English said. “Get better today than I was yesterday and be better tomorrow than I was today. I’ll just give everything I have. They paved the way.”