The blue T-shirt was pulled up to his hairline — covering watery eyes — yet Dedric Lawson still was able to reach blindly under his chair to grab what was needed.
With his right hand, he pulled a brown towel up to his face, wiping away tears.
It was less than a half-hour after Saturday’s 89-75 loss to Auburn in the round of 32, and Lawson showed uncharacteristic emotion while seated in front of his locker. Remember, this a man nicknamed “Smoove” for his always laid-back and even demeanor.
He shifted the towel to his left hand, then grasped at his eyes to dry them, breathing between a few sobs.
A few minutes earlier, he’d remained composed. He opened a Dasani water bottle on the way to a news conference podium, walking with coach Bill Self, who gave him a slap on the backside before they entered the room.
Reality struck a few minutes later when Lawson returned to KU’s locker room.
“It hit me when we first lost, but I tried to be strong for the guys around here,” Lawson said. “They look up to me.”
What became clear in the moment is that Lawson had taken on more responsibility — this whole season — than he’d previously let on.
The process started last year while sitting out as a transfer. Guard Devonté Graham would often pull him aside at practices, telling him, “Coach will want this from you next year.” Or, “Be sure to know to tell the guys this.”
Graham, in essence, was grooming his successor as the team’s captain.
Lawson never talked much about what it was like to bear that burden — until Saturday night, that is.
“I feel like we didn’t accomplish things we should have did this year,” Lawson said. “Being the leader, I feel like it’s my fault.”
It wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t, with Self speaking to that during a final response at his postgame news conference.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever ridden a guy — maybe Thomas Robinson (in 2012) — but he’d be the only guy we would have ridden as hard as Dedric,” Self said.
The coach also put it another way when talking about Lawson: “He’s had as good a year as we could ever have hoped for.”
Even in this game — one that seemed like a bad matchup for him from the start because of Auburn’s stable of athletic big men — Lawson finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He also was part of a second-half run that made the score respectable after the team fell behind 51-25 at halftime.
“We got down big, and guys played hard, things like that,” Lawson said. “But it’s too late. Down 26, the basket was big for those guys. They continued to make shots.”
It was all hard to process now: The rash of threes at the beginning. A few of the dunks Auburn picked up in the half-court. Allowing 26 fast-break points in the first half alone.
“I can’t even really get the visual in my head right now,” Lawson said, “of what really happened.”
This opportunity was a long time coming too. Lawson played two seasons at Memphis without getting to the NCAA Tournament, then was sidelined for a year while watching KU make the Final Four a year ago.
After waiting three years for his turn, Lawson’s first NCAA experience ended at two games.
“It’s something you dream of,” Lawson said of playing in March Madness. “It went away so quick.”
This was, more than likely, Lawson’s last game at KU. Though Self said in the postgame that the forward “has got to make some decisions” about potentially turning pro, he also admitted this year “may be the only two (NCAA games) that Dedric plays.”
For his part, Lawson said he hadn’t thought about his future, but he also was in a reflective mood when asked what he’ll remember most about the season.
“The practices, the bonding, the friendship,” Lawson said. “All these guys, they treat me like my brothers (do).”
When Self entered the locker room to deliver his final message after the loss, Lawson said the coach talked about being proud of how the guys played in the second half. Self also mentioned the final defeat wouldn’t take away from the team’s previous accomplishments.
“He said once the tournament is over, we’ll just look back and think about what season we had,” Lawson said. “We had a pretty decent season.”
That was a tough sell for Lawson in the moment. This wasn’t a typical KU team, and the season ended without the accomplishments of many others.
Right or wrong, it left Lawson to grapple with his own unsatisfying thoughts.
And left a man — one who’d been asked to do so much — feeling like he hadn’t done enough.