JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A team playing without its head coach had looked for much of the second half like it had no coaches at all. Maryland had shifted to a 3–2 zone that LSU assistant Greg Heiar estimates the Terrapins used “on 30 possessions all year,” and the Tigers had looked mystified as their offense broke down and Maryland chipped away at what once was a 15-point lead until the score was tied with 19.5 seconds to play. LSU had a timeout to draw up a play that might crack that zone.
Those who have watched LSU all season will point out that LSU couldn’t solve a zone even before coach Will Wade was suspended following a Yahoo! Sports report that revealed the contents of one of Wade’s conversations caught on an FBI wiretap as part of a far-reaching investigation into college basketball. So it probably wouldn’t have mattered had Wade been there. But the Tigers seemed in danger of joining Wade back in Baton Rouge if they didn’t find a way to penetrate that zone. So during the timeout, Heiar proposed a play that, theoretically, would work whether the Terrapins played zone or flipped back to man. Interim coach Tony Benford agreed, and the stage was set.
Tremont Waters, the sophomore point guard whose steadying presence has made the loss of Wade easier, would get the ball. Forward Naz Reid would set a screen on Maryland’s Darryl Morsell at the top of the key to (Reid hoped) spring Waters and allow him to drive toward the basket. Wings Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays would set up in the corners, giving Waters an outlet in case he ran into a wall consisting of 6'10" forwards Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith. Kavell Bigby-Williams, LSU’s other big man, would clear out but crash the boards looking for a tip-in.
“The players knew exactly what was coming,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We all knew what was coming. It was whether we were going to be able to stop it or not.”
When Waters took the inbound pass, two Terps charged him to trap him against the midcourt stripe. But when Waters passed to Mays, the Terps settled back into the 3–2. Mays passed it back, and Waters waited until seven seconds remained before he made his move. “This might sound funny, but I kind of blacked out,” Waters said. “I didn’t hear anything. I just knew I had to get to the rim.”
Reid set the screen, and Morsell laid on it. Waters kept churning and curled around Smith, the skinnier of Maryland’s towers (hence his nickname, Stix). The 240-pound Fernando saw Stix getting beat and slid into position, but he moved too late. Only Stix had a chance, but Waters had shielded the ball from the rangy freshman with his body. He scooped the ball into the air. It bounced high off the backboard and dropped through the net.
“What was designed,” Heiar said, “is what happened.”
Maryland’s desperation heave failed. Fernando comforted a crying Smith as the players left the court. Meanwhile, LSU players greeted Waters with a locker room celebration that lived up to his name.
Now LSU will head to Washington, where the third-seeded Tigers will play Friday against the Minnesota–Michigan State winner. The Tigers know how some of you feel. That they shouldn’t even be in the NCAA tournament. That they’re cheaters.
They get it.
It’s just that they don’t care.
“My body right now is just tingling,” forward Emmitt Williams said in the locker room Saturday. “I can’t believe we’re in the Sweet 16.”
LSU is talented enough to beat anyone else in the field and inconsistent enough to lose to anyone else in the field. It’s also possible that nothing that happens for LSU in this tournament will be officially recognized in a few years. According to the Yahoo! Sports story, Wade was caught on tape discussing a “strong-ass offer” to land Smart. Smart missed the Vanderbilt game immediately after the story broke, but he was reinstated before the SEC tournament. Wade, much to the chagrin of a vocal portion of the LSU fan base, remains suspended because he has thus far refused to meet with LSU athletic director Joe Alleva to answer questions about the comments caught by the wiretap. But Wade might have bigger issues. He has been subpoenaed to testify in the trial of suspected recruiting middleman Christian Dawkins. That trial is set to begin next month, and Wade has been advised not to discuss aspects of the case until then.
“I don’t know how deep this goes,” Alleva told Stadium’s Jeff Goodman on Thursday. “That’s the problem, and Will’s refused to talk to us. That’s the hardest part for me.” That put Alleva in a position where he had no choice but to suspend Wade and keep him suspended. “I wish he’d come in and just tell the truth,” Alleva told Goodman. “Just tell me what went on. I can handle the truth even if it’s bad.”
While that goes on in the background, LSU will play on. For the Tigers, Wade’s suspension and the potential consequences for the program aren’t even close to the most traumatic event they’ve dealt with this season. In late September, teammate Wayde Sims was shot and killed during a fight outside a party. That has weighed heavier on the Tigers’ minds than any potential NCAA rule violations. “They're the ones that paid the price,” interim coach Benford said of LSU’s players. “They've been through a lot.” They have stuck together thanks in part to the leadership of Waters, who was the player everyone trusted to have the ball when it meant the most. “I give it to these guys,” Benford said. “They have taken ownership of this team.”
LSU players know their continued presence in the tournament will inspire a river of molten takes. “Anything that’s said about us off the court or about how we play, it shouldn’t affect how we actually play on the court,” Waters said. “We understand we’re doing it for each other. I’m playing for Skylar, Kavell, Naz, Javonte, Emmitt, everybody on our team. And they’re playing for me. That’s just the way of our team. They’re doing that for one another. As long as we keep that mindset, the sky’s the limit.”
If anyone is mad that the Tigers will keep dancing into the second weekend, they aren’t particularly concerned. “We’re still here,” Williams said. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere.”