Tremont Waters’ go-to celebration is, usually, the casual fist-pump. No matter how flashy the assist he’s just dished might’ve been, no matter how deep the three-pointer or crafty the steal, the most emotion he typically shows is minimal, a slight, stoic punch with the right you’d have to be looking for to notice.
Saturday was no typical day, though. It’s March, after all, which means Madness.
Before the Madness, though, came the magic.
But not the fist pumps. When walk-on senior Reed Vial buried the first of two free throws for his first points of the season and doubled his career scoring tally, the moment required more of LSU’s freshman point guard. As he did with his 10 assists in a 78-57 win over Mississippi State, Waters delivered: a flying, Jordan-over-Ehlo-esque leap during which the ends of his grin nearly grazed the rafters of the PMAC.
And, by God, when Vial tossed in a three-pointer in the game’s final seconds, the rest of the PMAC was screaming, leaping, and, yes, fist-pumping, in sync with Waters. An arena often silent during a 10-21 slog just a season ago remembered, for moment, just how fun basketball can be.
“For me as a point guard, to pass to Reed and he gets fouled is a feeling that you can’t really describe,” Waters said after the win, the ear-to-ear grin still present. “Obviously he didn’t play much all season, but he does a lot of things off the court to help the team and the coaching staff.”
It’s fitting, then, that Vial will join the coaching staff next year as a graduate assistant. He’s got the requisite experience: as a player, of course, but also as a coach. That’s how he spent his freshman and sophomore years of college, when he temporarily traded in his uniform for a clipboard.
“When I came into college, I didn’t play ball,” Vial said. “I quit for two years. I actually coached middle school and high school. It’s just being around the game. However I can be around the game, that’s my thing. We’ll see where it goes.”
Vial put the exclamation mark on a special Senior Day at LSU, but it began the night before with a question mark. Senior Day festivities can be a mixed bag, particularly at LSU, where four-year players are a rarity. Four years spanned Aaron Epps, LSU’s lone four-year scholarship player, and Andre Stringer, LSU’s last four-year scholarship player to enjoy a final game in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Will Wade was worried for other reasons. As he walked into the team hotel Friday night for a traditional pre-Senior Day gathering, the first-year head coach turned to director of operations and longtime confidant Nelson Hernandez.
“Sometimes as a coach you wonder how much have you gotten through to them,” Wade said after the win. “How much have you done? I’ve always done something the night before the seniors’ final game. We do some stuff … Some of my teams it’s been pretty emotional. I told (Hernandez), ‘I don’t know how this is going to go tonight…This could be a real dud.'”
Coach doesn’t always know best, it turns out.
“It was one of the best ones we’ve had,” Wade said. “I told Nelly when we walked out, ‘Man, we’ve made quite a bit more progress probably than we thought.’ They’ve been taking in a lot more than we thought. They really care, maybe more than we thought. They care about each other, and I thought today was a crescendo of that.”
The magic of the moment carried over on the court. Vial’s showing might’ve been the last and least expected, but it wasn’t alone. After his junior college coach and brother presented him for the pre-game ceremony, Duop Reath scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, and his coach and brother drove back to Houston for a 6 p.m. game.
“It was a blessing for them to come here and witness my last senior home game,” said Reath, who told Tiger Rag last year his parents had never seen him play college ball. “They got a game tonight at 6, and it’s a four-hour drive to Houston, so they had to come, watch a little bit of the first half, then drive back. Shout out to them.”
Shout out to Epps, too, who capped off his career with 16 points and a career-high four three-pointers, including the single-season school record-setting 235th triple for the team in 2017-18. After sinking his fourth, Epps – part of LSU’s 2014-15 tournament team, 2015-16’s roller-coaster year with Ben Simmons, and last season’s last-place finish and 15-game losing streak, left the floor a winner, a fitting descriptor for the player whose coaches call him “Everyday Epps” for his day-by-day dependability.
“I was just happy,” said Epps. “I felt like people saw all the work that I put in. I just went out there and showed it. It was definitely fun.”
Then there was Vial, who started the game and, after LSU extended its lead late, managed to get back on the floor. He was fouled nearly immediately and sank both free throws to bring his career scoring tally from 1 to 3. That alone would’ve made the night memorable.
Then fellow walk-on Marshall Graves, with the clock ticking down, found Vial hovering deep on the left wing. The Baton Rouge native let it fly, and by the time found the bottom of the net, the PMAC was in full throttle.
March Madness can wait. Saturday was about March Magic.
“Five points in two minutes,” said Waters. “The GOAT.”
“That’s all my teammates,” Vial said. “Everyone knows when I get in the game, they will try to get me the ball, which isn’t really my thing. I will do it if I have to do it.”
“It’s his thing,” Waters interjected.
The seniors weren’t the only ones who showed out in the regular season home finale. Waters tallied another double-double with 14 points and 10 assists. His classmate, Brandon Rachal, was a game-high +20 in 27 minutes. Junior Brandon Sampson had 16 points and a handful of scrappy, hard-nosed plays that show his growth under Wade’s watch. Sophomore Skylar Mays slammed home the dunk of the season.
In the end, LSU improved to 17-13 overall, and the Tigers quadrupled their conference wins from two last season to eight in Wade’s debut season.
“It can’t go much better than that when you are trying to honor your seniors,” Wade said. “Hopefully, we can carry over how we played today into St. Louis next week.”
That’s where LSU will head for the SEC Tournament, where it’s the 10th seed and takes on, of course, Mississippi State, the seventh-seed, on Thursday night. With the aforementioned record and a host of quality wins over the likes of Michigan, Houston, Missouri, and two-a-piece over Texas A&M and Arkansas, the Tigers have the inside track on a berth in the NIT, where Wade feels they belong.
“I think we’re an NIT team,” Wade said. “I told my team that the other day, after the South Carolina game: ‘We tried to will ourselves into the NCAA Tournament, but this is who we are.’ The NIT would be a great step for us if we could get into that tournament. I think we’re good enough, if we got in there, to make a run and maybe get a chance to go to New York. That’d be a great year, to get into that thing. I think we’re in pretty good shape right now. I’d like to get one (win) more in St. Louis.”
If that happens, it could mean one more in the PMAC, too. If that game has half the storylines as Saturday’s show-stopper, there’ll be plenty more fist-pumping for everyone present.
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