BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Emmitt Williams pulled on a purple T-shirt commemorating LSU’s Southeastern Conference title, hopped over a media table along the baseline and joined several teammates climbing into a raucous and jubilant student section.
It was one of the happier moments in a packed and emotionally charged arena where fans alternated between celebrating the No. 10 Tigers’ potentially tainted triumph and protesting the suspension of Will Wade, who coached LSU back to prominence, only to be banned from a home finale that ended with a celebratory net-cutting ceremony.
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.
Vanderbilt: Saben Lee scored 16 points and Yanni Wetzell had 11. Solid perimeter shooter Matt Ryan missed a third straight game because of a hand injury, which only made it tougher for struggling Vandy to keep pace. The Commodores spent much of the game with a shooting percentage in the low 30s before finishing at 41.2 percent (21 of 51). They also were outrebounded 38-26.
LSU: The Tigers had the depth to withstand the absences of Smart and Reid. The Tigers had a double-digit lead within the first 10 minutes and were never threatened en route to becoming only the second LSU team in program history to win as many as 26 games in a regular season. The 1981 team holds the school record with 27.
As the Tigers cut down the net to mark LSU’s 11th SEC title, Sims’ parents, Wayne and Fay, took turns climbing the ladder with scissors in place of their late son. Wayne played for LSU in the 1980s and raised his family in Baton Rouge.
“It was an incredible moment,” said Graves, a fellow Baton Rouge native who played with Wayde Sims in high school and college. “If anybody deserves to go up there and cut those nets down it is them. They are amazing people.”
Vanderbilt: Opens SEC tournament play Wednesday night against Texas A&M.
LSU: Begins SEC tournament play Friday in the third round after earning a double-bye.
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