Tremont Waters had 14 points and eight assists, and LSU clinched its first regular-season SEC title in a decade with an 80-59 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday night in the Tigers’ first game without Wade.
“He was here in spirit,” Waters said of his coach. “I’m pretty sure — like 101 percent — that he watched the game. And I’m pretty sure when we messed up he was yelling at the TV and throwing stuff at the TV.
“We know that he’s had our backs since Day 1.”
LSU (26-5, 16-2) didn’t mess up much with assistant Tony Benford serving as interim head coach.
“We’ve been through a lot this season,” Benford said, alluding not only to recent events but also the shooting death of LSU junior forward Wayde Sims shortly before the season. “They really came together and showed a lot of resolve.”
Darius Days scored a season-high 15 points for the Tigers, and Marshall Graves had a season-high 12 — all on 3-pointers. Skylar Mays scored 13 points, and Kavell Bigby-Williams had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“The last 48 to 72 hours have kind of been a roller coaster,” Mays said. “But I think that’s another thing that just makes this team special — our ability to, like coach Wade always says, narrow our focus and focus on the task at hand.”
Vanderbilt (9-22, 0-18) became the first team to go winless in the SEC since former league member Georgia Tech in 1954, and the first ever to do so with an 18-game conference schedule.
Wade was suspended indefinitely on Friday in the wake of published excerpts of a wire-tapped phone call between the coach and a man convicted last year in federal court of funneling illegal payments to the families of college basketball recruits.
When nearly 14,000 fans packing the bowl-shaped Pete Maravich Assembly Center weren’t passionately demonstrating solidarity with the players, they were protesting LSU’s administration.
Boos and chants of “Joe must go!” rained down from the student section and other corners of the arena when athletic director Joe Alleva walked to his seat a few rows up from the sideline. Fans also called Alleva a “coward,” the implication being that LSU rushed to suspend its coach before it had conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
The unusual environment did not go unnoticed by Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew.
“The student section today, I thought, was a little extra loud,” he said. “So, credit to them for coming out and really supporting their team.”
Fans held up signs reading, “Free Will Wade,” and “Free Javonte Smart,” the freshman guard and former Louisiana player of the year who apparently was referred to in the 2017 call recorded by the FBI and did not suit up.
“People cheering and protesting, whatever’s going on, it’s a college atmosphere,” Graves said. “We have great fans. We play for a great state and we do our best to represent them.”
LSU’s decision to suspend Wade has been praised by conference commissioner Greg Sankey, who said he found the published excerpts of Wade’s wire-tapped phone call “very disturbing.”
Although Smart was held out, senior associate athletic director Robert Munson stressed that decision was made “in an abundance of caution” and did not represent any knowledge of wrongdoing by Smart or his family, who Munson said were cooperating with university officials.
LSU also held out Naz Reid, but for entirely different reasons. He received a hard blow to the head during a victory at Florida on Wednesday, and was given the night off with LSU already having clinched the top seed for the SEC Tournament.