The play started to unfold. Naz Reid set a screen. Waters drove toward the basket. LSU forward Kavell Bigby-Williams saw Waters maneuver past Jalen Smith. Bigby-Williams wasn’t sure whether his point guard would score, but he knew Waters would make a play.
Then came the layup that bounced off the backboard and through the net, Maryland’s inbounds pass, the desperation heave, the buzzer, the celebration.
Close games have become patched into the fabric of this LSU team. Surviving two of them in Jacksonville, Fla., brought the No. 3 seed Tigers (28-6) to Capital One Arena for their Sweet 16 matchup Friday against No. 2 Michigan State (30-6). LSU has played in seven overtime games this season and won five of them. In 18 games decided by six points or fewer, the Tigers have won 13.
“I don’t see it as luck,” freshman forward Emmitt Williams said of his team’s propensity to find a way to win late in games. “Because we work so hard in the gym, especially during summer. I feel like it’s just all coming out and paying off.”
When asked whether he had ever been part of a team with this many overtime games, Williams laughed and said, “Not even in 2K,” referring to the NBA video game. So how have they done it? How have these one- or two-possession games continued to lean in the favor of the Tigers? Williams asked his teammate Darius Days, sitting at the neighboring locker.
“Because we believe in each other,” Days said. “We love each other. We have team chemistry.”
“How much?” Williams asked.
“To the moon and back,” Days said.
“That’s not far, brother,” Williams said.
“The whole galaxy,” Days said.
Maybe the chemistry helps. The players certainly think so. This is a group that lost a teammate, Wayde Sims, who was fatally shot in September. Now the Tigers are steering themselves through the tournament without Coach Will Wade, who was suspended by LSU after media reports described a federal wiretap of Wade discussing an offer to a player and his family.
But the Tigers also feel ready to handle another close game, if one does arise against Michigan State, because they have been in so many and simulate situations like that every day. LSU practices six-minute games to mirror late-game situations. “If you ask anybody on the team,” freshman Javonte Smart said, “they’ll tell you what a six-minute game means.”
Taking care of the ball, making free throws and playing solid defense stand as the core principles in those situations, Smart said. Interim coach Tony Benford praised the way the team has bought into what’s preached in these drills. And in the NCAA tournament, that’s how LSU has survived.
Against Yale, the Tigers let their 18-point advantage fall to single digits for the final 10 minutes, including a three-point margin with 12 seconds remaining as Yale desperately fouled hoping for a chance. Two days later, LSU needed that go-ahead layup from Waters in the game’s final seconds, even though the Tigers held a lead of 15 points early in the second half.
Ideally, even though the team has proved its ability to win in these situations, LSU wouldn’t keep forcing itself into close games.
But “that’s kind of been our MO for the whole season,” Bigby-Williams said when asked about letting leads slip away. “We’ve been having large leads, and then for some reason, I don’t know what it is, we let the team back in the game.”
LSU won the SEC’s regular season title but then lost in its first game at the conference tournament. Though the Tigers earned a No. 3 seed, some ratings systems showed they fit in better with teams one or two seed lines below. According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, LSU is the second-worst team left in the tournament field, ahead of only No. 12 seed Oregon. When the Tigers faced Yale on the first full day of the tournament, LSU’s 14th-seeded opponent became a trendy upset pick, particularly fueled by Wade’s suspension.
“People were picking on us each and every game: ‘Where’s your coach? Oh, my gosh, how many guys are getting paid?’ ” Williams said. “We just use that as motivation and try to get the win. Of course, they’re going to hate. No one wanted to see us go this far.”
Yet LSU has indeed made it to this point — even with all those narrow margins on the team’s résumé. But maybe that experience will pay off here in Washington.
“In the NCAA tournament,” Bigby-Williams said, “it’s not about how you win.”
All that matters is whether you win. And LSU’s players have become masters of finding a way.