Skylar Mays found himself in multiple unfamiliar situations Wednesday night.
First and foremost was the broken bone in his hand, which led to the second strange scenario of the evening for the sophomore guard: for the first time all season, he didn’t start. Instead, Mays came off the bench, and by the time he checked in with 6:37 to go – coming into a four-quarter game with a deeper three-point line, a different shot clock, and a wider lane – his team trailed 10-2.
They didn’t trail for long.
Mays led a comeback charge that saw the Tigers turn that eight-point deficit into a lead that grew as large as 14. He scored 11 points, eight of which came in the first half and four of which came in an 18 second stretch on a layup, a steal, and a dunk that eradicated the Cajuns’ only lead of the night.
“We started off slow, so I just came in and tried to build energy,” Mays said. “I was able to get a breakaway dunk and I felt that brought something to this team and we were able to get going from there.”
Mays’ dunk negated ULL’s lead, but it was Brandon Sampson’s dunk – his third thunderous slam of the night – that sealed LSU’s win. Sampson, starting in Mays’ place, chipped in 18 points and 5 rebounds, throwing down a trio of tremendous hammers while tossing in a critical three and seven clutch free throws.
Wade has been critical of Sampson at times during his junior season for not staying fully engaged and playing with edge, but with the Cajuns talking trash in the build-up to the game, motivation was no problem for the hometown kid.
“We knew it was going to be a high momentum game, two teams from Louisiana,” Sampson said. “Going into it we tried to keep our composure, not get into it too much. It turned out to be a little chippy game. It was really exciting.”
Sampson gave LSU its two highlights of the night with his second-quarter and third-quarter flushes. With 1:29 left in the first half, the junior charged after a Daryl Edwards missed three-pointer and stuffed it back with one hand. The next quarter, after ULL had just cut LSU’s lead from 14 to 3 in a matter of minutes, Sampson emphatically slammed the door with a slam dunk, pump faking from the right wing before elevating uncontested for a stunning finish.
“Felt great,” Sampson, understated as always, said after. “Momentum builders.”
While Sampson stuffed the stat sheet and the highlight reels, Mays made LSU tick. Tremont Waters played just 24 minutes due to foul trouble, leaving Mays, a point guard all his life before moving to the 2-guard this year, to handle the ball-handling duties. He did so effectively, despite just one assist to three turnovers. Mays did less pure facilitating and more slashing, scoring his first eight points in the paint, as LSU outscored the Cajuns 46 to 28 around the rim. He finished a game-best plus-24 in 31 minutes.
“Skylar really changed the game when Tre got in foul trouble in the first half,” Wade said. “I thought he really changed the course of the game when he came in with his dunks and attacking the rim.”
Mays also sunk a crucial three late in the fourth-quarter, once again fending off a Cajun comeback with a back-breaking triple. The wider lane, deeper three-point line, and four-quarter format instituted by the NIT on an experimental basis yielded only positive results for the Ph.D-seeking Mays.
“I liked the rule changes,” Mays said. “At the end of the day, it’s still basketball, but I was definitely happy with the four quarters. I liked that.”
The decision to bring Mays off the bench was Wade’s, influenced by the broken bone and lack of practice time thereby for his sophomore guard.
“It was really just because he hasn’t been able to practice the last couple of days,” Wade said. “We were trying to put a little toughness out there to start the game, not that Sky’s not tough. We thought we could bring him off of the bench as a little bit of a change of pace.”
It worked, and LSU moves on to a Monday matchup at Utah. This time a year ago, Mays was sitting at home, watching the rest of the country play college basketball after his team went 10-21. Now, even when he comes off the bench and leads his team to victory, he’s not doing much sitting.
“It is a big turnaround,” he said. “It is definitely a time that you want to be playing. For myself, I want to play some more games with these seniors. I am just cherishing the moment.”
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