There was an odd feeling in the air before first tip in the Maravich Center on Saturday night as the LSU basketball team defeated Vanderbilt 80-59 to claim the Southeastern Conference regular season title.
But what was supposed to be a night of finally reaching the mountain top of the SEC ended up turning into something else otherworldly.
The new broke early Friday afternoon that head coach Will Wade would be suspended indefinitely for not showing up for a meeting between him and the administration. University officials felt they had no other choice but to suspend him. They announced that assistant coach Tony Benford would step up and assume the interim role.
On Saturday, the LSU team learned that they would also be without two other key players in freshman guard Javonte Smart and freshman forward Naz Reid.
Smart was held out as a precaution and by abidance with the university investigating internally and Reid was held out for concussion protocol after a very physical game at Florida.
On a night where the Tigers were undermanned they rose to the occasion and then some. This team has had a new hero step up each game this season, and tonight that theme held true as freshman forward Darius Days and junior guard Marshall Graves carried the day for LSU.
They both kick-started LSU’s three-point shooting frenzy tonight as they combined for 9-of-14 from behind the three point arc for 27 total points.
Much of their outside shooting was the reason that the Tigers as a team recorded an incredible 50 percent shooting clip from three for the game.
Junior guard Skylar Mays was not surprised by Graves’ performance as he sees it firsthand every day in practice against the scout team.
“He’s [Graves] the best shooter on our team” Mays said. “I stand by it. You can’t write a better story. Marshall’s an unbelievable worker. An unbelievable person.”
When asked in the postgame about his red hot shooting performance Graves was very thankful of what it’s like being a part of a team like this.
“It definitely felt amazing, just as you would expect” Graves explained. “It’s a special blessing to play with this team. It’s easy to have confidence and play well when you have great teammates behind you. Great coaches that believe in you.”
But despite a red-hot performance from the Tigers, it all took a back seat to a larger elephant in the room
If you had been sitting close to the student section you would have forgotten that a basketball game for a conference championship was even being played for tonight, as the students took full advantage of the scene to voice their displeasure with the unfortunate circumstance surrounding the program.
Students could be heard shouting "Free Will Wade" as well as profanities at school administration.
As for the players? They looked focused and ready tonight from the opening tip and knew just exactly what they were playing for.
Vanderbilt may have been 0-17 in conference but the way the Tigers played tonight, it would have been tough for any other school in the league to win in Baton Rouge on this night.
With the void of coach Wade tonight, Tony Benford in a sense handed the keys to the car to sophomore guard Tremont Waters to run the offense and lead his team. In the postgame Benford said Waters was essentially the coach on the floor for the team.
Behind the reliability of Tremont Waters and the calming leadership presence of Skylar Mays, both were able to lead the team in an otherwise difficult environment as they choked out Vanderbilt easily and enjoyed the post game celebrations of cutting down the net with their team.
The next stop on the road for the 2019 LSU SEC regular season champions is the SEC Tournament in Nashville and with tonight’s win, they clinched the number one seed and will not have to play again until Friday.