Freshman combo guard Javonte Smart showed up at a 7 a.m. practice on Saturday morning before No. 13 LSU’s highly-anticipated matchup with No. 5 Tennessee expecting to play his normal role off the bench.
But when he arrived and LSU coach Will Wade told him he’d be matched up with Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone, he knew something was up.
LSU’s starting point guard Tremont Waters was unavailable for the Tigers’ biggest home game of the season due to an undisclosed illness, meaning he’d have to step up and fill that role.
And boy did he ever.
Smart finished with a game-high 29 points, including two free throws with 0.6 seconds left in overtime that sealed an 82-80 victory over the Volunteers (24-3, 12-2 Southeastern Conference) in the Tigers’(22-5, 12-2) biggest victory in the PMAC in recent memory.
The victory marked LSU’s second against a Top 5 team in as many weeks, making it the first time the Tigers have beaten two teams ranked that highly in a single season.
The Baton Rouge native Smart also had five assists, five rebounds and three steals in the stellar performance.
“I thought Javonte (Smart) was phenomenal,” said LSU coach Will Wade. “I told somebody before the game that it probably wasn’t going to be as aesthetically pleasing, but he’s going to get the job done. That’s what he does.”
It definitely wasn’t the prettiest 29-point performance in the world. Smart shot 9-for-22 from the field and committed four of LSU’s seven turnovers.
But as Wade said, it got the job done, and the Tigers now control their own destiny in league play with just four games remaining on the schedule.
“I just had a lot of fun,” Smart said. I just wanted to get that win under our belt and push forward.”
Another Baton Rouge native Skylar Mays also had a big day, adding 23 points thanks in large part to 10-for-12 shooting from the free throw line.
Mays could be seen holding four fingers up on both of his hands both, making a “44” for fallen former LSU forward Wayde Sims who was tragically killed prior to the start of the season, when his name was called during starting lineup announcements and during the postgame celebration.
“If I’m being personally honest, I always make sure Wayde’s remembered,” Skylar said. “He meant so much to me, being my best friend. In a moment like that when I know we have the cameras on us, I try to make sure that I give him a moment to shine.”
The Tigers also had to find a way to stay in the game during the first half after freshman forward Naz Reid went to the bench with two fouls less than four minutes into the game.
Smart and Skylar Mays combined for 17 points to keep LSU within striking distance as the Volunteers went to the halftime break with a 36-31 lead.
Junior guard Marshall Graves, — who earned a scholarship in December and spends most of his time on the scout team — even got involved in the first half with a 3-pointer that gave LSU a 27-26 lead.
“How about Marshall,” Wade said. “Marshall comes in and hits a 3. That’s what he does. Usually he’s on the scout team. He scorches us on the scout team as the other team’s best shooter. … Not only the shot, he also had some great defensive possessions, he contested shots, he had a tremendous blockout.”
Tennessee controlled the pace at the start of the second half, building a nine-point lead with 6:44 left in the game.
That’s when Smart took matters into his own hands, scoring 11 consecutive points for the Tigers that cut Tennessee’s lead to 67-66 with 2:41 left.
Grant Williams hit a pair of free throws to extend the Volunteer’s lead back to three points, but things took a turn when Mays hit a 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining to tie the game at 69 points apiece.
Regulation proved it wasn’t enough to decide the game, and LSU entered its sixth overtime of the season, a program record.
Kavell Bigby-Williams came up big in the extra period opening it with a put-back dunk to give LSU the first lead of overtime and then another put-back layup to tie the game at 80 points apiece with six seconds left.
It looked as though the game was heading for a second overtime when Lamonte Turner missed a 3 pointer on the ensuing possession, but Javonte Smart grabbed the rebound and upon turning around, he collided with Grant Williams, who picked up a foul to send Smart to the line for the game-winning free throws with 0.6 seconds showing on the game clock.
Smart said he had no doubt he was going to drain the two shots and win the game for the Tigers.
“Yesterday at practice we shot free throws,” Smart said. “I did not miss a free throw in practice. So I just said ‘practice makes perfect,’ and I went up to the free-throw line with a lot of confidence.”
After he sunk his two free throw attempts, Tennessee heaved a pass to Grant Williams who caught it inside the 3-point line and put a shot up, but the it fell short, and it may not have even gotten off in time as it didn’t show up in the final box.
After the game the Tigers sprinted to the student section and celebrated with their classmates as Will Wade took the microphone and thanked the crowd.
“I want to thank everyone for coming today,” Wade said. “This was awesome. This is what we’ve been building for. Our team puts it on the line for Louisiana every night, and we didn’t have the best circumstances today, but we found away. That’s what we do in Louisiana. Boot up, baby!”
The Tigers now control their destiny in the SEC with a head-to-head advantage against Tennessee and Kentucky, who currently share first place in the league standings with LSU. If they win their next four games, they will earn the first seed in the SEC Tournament.
LSU will get back in action on Tuesday when it hosts Texas A&M in a game Wade said he hopes the Tigers play with the same intensity they played with on Saturday.
“I feel like we are really a part of something special,” Mays said. “I feel like this year is starting to look like a turning point in LSU basketball. Being a part of the downside of it and seeing the way this team is going, and the fact we have not even peaked yet is something I see as special.”
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