BATON ROUGE, La. — Javonte Smart lost track of the number of free throws he attempted during Friday’s practice, but he does remember the results. “I didn’t miss,” he smiled. Less than 24 hours later, here stood LSU’s true freshman guard at the free throw line amid a completely full but eerily quiet arena in a tie game and just 0.6 seconds on the clock. These weren’t the same as practice free throws—they were for the win—but the result was familiar: He didn’t miss. The 13th-ranked Tigers beat No. 5 Tennessee 82–80 in overtime to set off a mad celebration indicative of a program that with each passing game continues its climb from the pit of college basketball toward its summit.
A group of LSU players partied in a rowdy student section, standing on tables in the middle of a mosh pit, and second-year coach Will Wade took to the microphone for an impromptu center-court speech, ending with, “Our team lays it on the line for Louisiana every night! Boot up, baby!” And then, as if this party needed more poppers, a cherished tune came playing through the speakers of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Mardi Gras Mambo. A week ahead of the holiday itself, the biggest party that south Louisiana throws, LSU hosted its own. “That’s as good as it gets for college basketball,” Wade said afterward.
Wade’s team matched the reveling on the court against a team in Tennessee that had lost just two games entering Saturday. The Tigers (22–5, 12–2) overcame two nine-point deficits in the second half, an illness that sidelined leading scorer Tremont Waters and the struggles of second-leading scorer Naz Reid, who finished with one point. In doing this all, they mentered a three-way tie atop the SEC with Kentucky and Tennessee, two programs they’ve claimed wins over in the span of 11 days. At this point just two years ago, LSU was mired in a 15-game losing streak and had one conference victory. The program is now two weeks from potentially claiming its first SEC regular season championship in exactly a decade, a quick reawakening captained by a 36-year-old coach, a group of five-star talents and a fan base thirsty for successful hoops.
On Saturday, they needed late-game outbursts from two local guys. Smart and Skylar Mays, a pair of Baton Rouge natives, combined for 52 points. They made 19 of their 22 shots from the field and played 89 minutes of a possible 90. A whopping 26 of their points came over the final 14 minutes of the game—nine minutes of regulation and the five-minute overtime—capped, of course, by those free throws. The 6'4", 200-pound Smart tracked down a loose rebound of a Tennessee missed 3-pointer in the waning seconds of overtime, and was fouled by Tennessee star Grant Williams as he tried to push the ball up the court in the madness of the final seconds. Before the free throws, during a timeout to review the game clock, Smart thought back to Friday. “Practice makes perfect,” he said. His head coach wasn’t worried. “No doubt,” Wade smiled, “those things were going in.”
And then came the party, a celebration of the unthinkable—a program that has now won two games over top-five teams in less than two weeks after finishing 2–16 in the SEC in 2016–17. This is a revival of a sport buried at LSU for years by its powerhouse football program and its championship-winning baseball team. Already this season, the Tigers beat a top-five team on the road for the first time in nearly 40 years (Kentucky) and got their largest road victory over a ranked foe (Ole Miss). Their 11–1 start in SEC play was the best since 2009 and their 7–0 start in road games was the best since 1981. They played Saturday with their highest ranking in a decade, and this matchup was the first of top 15 teams at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in 35 years. It’s been quite a year off the court, too. Wayde Sims, a 20-year-old junior, was shot and killed in September during a fistfight in Baton Rouge, a tragedy caught on chilling video that sent shockwaves through the community. Wade, the team’s second-year coach, has been linked through wiretaps to the FBI’s probe into college basketball corruption and, according to Yahoo! Sports, could eventually be subpoenaed. Waters’s absence in the biggest home game in more than three decades was another chapter in their story. The sophomore from Connecticut is averaging nearly 16 points, six assists and three steals.
Doctors ruled out Waters on Friday after IVs failed to do the trick, and his teammates only found out during Saturday morning's walkthrough. “He initiates most of our offense,” Mays said. “We knew we’d have to be a lot more aggressive and emulate what he does.” Coaches flipped their game plan overnight, Wade says, moving from Waters’s dribble-drive attack to leaning on 6'10", 250-pound freshman post hog Reid. That was the plan until Reid got two early fouls and “We had to go to Plan C,” Wade said. “We overcame a lot of adversity.”
What was Plan C? Smart and Mays slashing to the goal. With Tennessee holding a nine-point lead with six minutes left, Smart scored 11 consecutive points and then Mays scored five straight, sinking a pair of free throws with 44 seconds left to give LSU its first lead since the first half. A Williams layup sent the game into overtime before the Tigers prevailed and the party started.
“The year we’re having,” Mays said afterward, “it’s starting to feel like the turning point of LSU basketball.”