The 15-point lead had evaporated. The tide had turned. With less than a minute to play in its second-round NCAA tournament matchup with Maryland on Saturday, LSU needed a hero. In fact, it eventually needed two.
The first, Skylar Mays, rose up from the left wing, straight through the clouds hanging over LSU’s program, and buried a final-minute, tie-breaking 3-pointer. After Maryland’s Jalen Smith answered at the other end, March’s stage was again vacant.
And sophomore guard Tremont Waters, the smallest player on the court at 5-foot-11, seized it.
Waters slithered through the Terrapins’ suddenly stifling defense, past two 6-foot-10 shot-blockers, and gave the 2019 NCAA tournament its first magical moment:
MARCH = MADNESS
LSU ADVANCES pic.twitter.com/GLOEEscLhN
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 23, 2019
Maryland’s desperation heave sailed long. Tigers players streamed onto the court to mob Waters. In the huddle, Waters said postgame, they had told the sophomore they wanted him taking the final shot. He came off Naz Reid’s screen and complied.
Later, those same teammates soaked him with a full water jug:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2019
His falling, looping layup gave LSU a 69-67 win and the first of 16 berths in next week’s regional semifinals. It will be the Tigers’ first Sweet 16 appearance since 2006, when Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Tyrus Thomas led the school all the way to the Final Four.
From another perspective, however, LSU’s progression to the Sweet 16 is a headache – for the NCAA, and perhaps even for the coach of the team that is moving on without him.
Head coach Will Wade remains suspended
Somewhere, presumably back in Louisiana, head coach Will Wade watched Waters’ winner from afar, likely on a TV.
LSU suspended Wade earlier this month, one day after a Yahoo Sports report revealed that Wade had been caught on FBI wiretaps discussing a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. LSU officials reportedly informed Wade that he could return to the sidelines if he met with school administrators and provided satisfactory answers to questions about the wiretaps. But Wade, according to an LSU spokesman, declined when LSU refused to A) limit the scope of the questions, and B) hold the meeting without an NCAA representative present.
Wade, instead, has hidden behind the veil of a strange, evasively worded statement. “Will’s refused to talk to us,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva told Stadium after the team’s first-round win over Yale. “That’s the hardest part for me. I wish he’d come in and just tell the truth. Just tell me what went on. I can handle the truth even if it’s bad.”
Many LSU fans seem to support Wade. During an SEC regular-season title-clinching win over Vanderbilt, chants of “Free Will Wade!” and “Joe must go!” rang out from the student section. But if Wade won’t talk to officials, he’ll continue watching his team’s tournament run from home.
Has the ‘outside noise’ affected LSU?
Meanwhile, the player who was presumably the subject of Wade’s “strong-ass offer,” Javonte Smart, returned to action after being held out of the Vanderbilt game. He scored nine points in Saturday’s victory.
Wade’s absence hasn’t noticeably affected the Tigers just yet. Perhaps indirectly it has. They’ve now failed to put away both tournament opponents despite holding double-digit second-half leads. Yale, in Round 1, almost came back from down 18. On Saturday, LSU botched the end of the first half, and eventually coughed up a 15-point lead. For a good 10 minutes, it failed to adjust to Maryland’s zone.
The X’s and O’s impact of Wade’s suspension likely hasn’t mattered as much as the psychological impact. The controversy swirling around the program has surely been somewhat of a distraction. “It’s been tough,” Mays said after the Yale win. “There’s been a lot of outside noise going on.”
But the players have blocked it out. Or at least they’ve played through it. And they’re moving on to Washington, DC, for the East regional, where they’ll meet Michigan State.
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