By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Tremont Waters didn’t register a steal in LSU’s page-turning win over Michigan on Tuesday at the Maui Invitational.
But with the help of a manager, Waters came up with some pre-game thievery that would prove vital.
After LSU’s first practice in Hawaii, Waters approached head coach Will Wade with some concern about the basketballs they would be playing with. The Tigers, a Nike school, use Nike basketballs, and the freshman point guard didn’t like the feel of Maui’s Adidas balls.
“I said, ‘No, Tre, they’re great shooting balls, you’re going to love them,'” Wade told the LSU Sports Radio Network after the game. “He said, ‘I just don’t like the feel of them.’ So he asked our manager. Our manager took one from the high school where we practiced – I probably shouldn’t say this – and Tre walked around with the ball for two days. He slept with it. Just so he could get a feel for it. That’s the type of player he is.
“It paid dividends tonight.”
Boy, did it. Waters, after a somewhat rocky start – he scored just 6 points with 4 turnovers in the first half – looked plenty comfortable late in the Tigers’ 77-75 comeback, scoring nine of his 15 second half points over the final five minutes to help LSU erase a nine-point deficit to land the victory.
It started with 5:02 to play. Down 68-59, Waters brought the ball up on the left wing, dribbling middle before crossing back over and driving to the rim for a tidy right-handed finish and the foul. He sunk the free throw to cut the deficit to six.
It was three 30 seconds later, after fellow freshman Brandon Rachal came up with a blocked shot and a recovery of the loose ball. Waters capitalized with a step back three from the right wing, and within less than a minute, a three-possession game became a one-possession game.
“Brandon Rachal played tremendous,” Wade said. “That block on 12. We trust him. To put a freshman out there at the end of the game like that was just huge. He just makes all those winning plays. They don’t all show in the stat sheet. But they’re winning plays.”
Aaron Epps, playing a season-high 23 minutes off the bench after recovering from a foot injury, came up big in the clutch too, hitting a pair of jumpers – a long two and a three to cut the deficit to a single point with two minutes to go. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, giving the Tigers critical minutes at the 5 to counteract Michigan’s switching defense.
“Epps gave us huge minutes,” Wade said. “Epps is a vital piece. We played him at the 5. They couldn’t switch, so he got some open looks.”
It was Waters who delivered the final, decisive blows. His step-back two from 19 feet tied the game with 90 seconds left, and when Skylar Mays poked a ball loose on the following possession, Waters dove to the floor and flipped the ball over his head for a no-look dish to Mays. The sophomore slammed home the game-winner in style, reversing for a flashy finish, and also came up with a crucial contest on the game’s final play, forcing Michigan’s game-winning attempt from three to fall short.
Tremont Waters. ?. Part Three. Holy cow. pic.twitter.com/gnm2mxES3K
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 21, 2017
“When Michigan got up 9, I think in the past, we’d have folded up our tent and gone home,” Wade said. “We just dug in with a grit you have to have, and said, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ Of course it helps when you have Tremont.”
Waters, meanwhile, declined credit after the game, instead dishing it out to his teammates and coaches.
“We work hard in practice,” he said. “Everything starts in practice. Our conditioning, our strength and conditioning overall with Coach Goldin, that sets our tone for our practice and going to practice and working on all our little things that we need to work on. Like that last defensive play. Skylar didn’t foul him. He put his hands straight up, and that led to a contested three at the end of the game and pretty much closed it out.”
Already in his young career, Waters is a crucial cog in LSU’s machinery. With him on the floor, LSU is outscoring opponents by 41 points per 100 possessions, according to Open Look Analytics. When Waters leaves the floor, the number drops to just 2 points per 100 possessions. He added five assists to his 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting and proved to be the best player on a floor full of Michigan players with NCAA Tournament and Big 10 Tournament title experience.
“We turned the page on our program tonight,” Wade said. “We got down in the second half. And in the past we’d let that thing swell up and we’d have lost by 20, but we came back and gritted it out and found a way to win. Helps having a point guard like him.”