LSU assistant Bill Armstrong had never sat in the head coach’s seat until Monday against Sam Houston State when he had to take the place of COVID-19 quarantined Tigers’ basketball boss Will Wade.
“With about six minutes to go in the first half, I lost my voice,” Armstrong said. “I’m not used to yelling that much.”
Baton Rouge native Josh LeBlanc, a transfer from Georgetown, had never played a game in an LSU uniform until Monday. He also hadn’t played in a game in more than a year.
“I had some butterflies stepping on the court,” LeBlanc said, “but I’m always going to be the same energy guy. That’s me. That’s how I like to play. That’s how I like to express myself on the court.”
Voice or no voice, Armstrong is 1-0 as an interim coach after the Tigers got a late burst to finally put away the pesky Bearkats 88-66 in a game closed to the public in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Without Wade who tested positive for COVID-19, two assistants and reserve Shareef O’Neal presumably also quarantined for contact tracing and without starting forward Trendon Watford who sprained an ankle over the weekend in practice, LeBlanc and the Tigers’ veteran leaders Javonte Smart and Darius Days guided LSU (4-1) through some rough spots.
Even with the 11 a.m. start, Smart was on his game from the jump. He scored a game-high 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting including 3 of 5 3s and added 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals.
“Not having Coach Wade and Trendon, we had to fit a few pieces together to come up with the win,” Smart said. “All I can say is we won in the end.”
Days had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. But he and Smart both preferred to talk about the debut of the 6-7 LeBlanc, who in just more than 14 minutes scored 5 points including two emphatic catch and dunk follows, grabbed 8 rebounds (4 defensive, 4 offensive) and had at least 10 of LSU’s 40 deflections.
“LeBlanc is my guy, he’s been through a lot,” Smart said of the former Madison Prep star. “He brings a lot of energy. He’s a great defender. We’re just happy he’s out there with us.”
Nobody is more ecstatic about the addition of LeBlanc than the 6-8 Days, who’s had to carry the inside load last season and at the start of this year along with Watford.
“He’s somebody I like going into battle with,” Days said of LeBlanc. “I know he’s somebody who has my back and helps me down the stretch.”
LeBlanc last played in a game on Nov. 30, 2019, scoring 2 points in Georgetown’s loss to UNC-Goldsboro. He had to sit out a full year in accordance with NCAA transfer rules but has practiced with the Tigers the entire time.
Though he has a Dennis Rodman-type game as an aggressive defender and rebounder who gets few offensive touches, LeBlanc certainly didn’t look rusty in his first game back in action.
“The way he (LeBlanc) plays, you can take some time off and what he does is what he’s going to be able to do,” said Wade, who watched the game on TV. “He’s a junkyard dog. If you’re a junkyard dog, you’re going to be a junkyard dog at 11 a.m. on Monday or at 8 p.m. on Wednesday or at 6 a.m. when we’re doing boot camp. That’s just who he is and what he does.”
Sam Houston (2-3) cut LSU’s lead to 70-62 with 4:39 left before the Tigers re-heated on an 18-4 run to close the game. The Bearkats were led by guard Demarkus Lampley with 16 points.
LSU plays again in the PMAC against the University of New Orleans on Wednesday night at 8. Wade said he’ll still be in quarantine, so Armstrong will again coach the Tigers.
“Coach Wade created the culture for all of us to be able to step in and do our jobs under these circumstances,” Armstrong said. “We talked all the way until I arrived here (before Monday’s game.) He said, ‘You’re prepared for this.’ It’s just a testament to him. He prepared us for this because of the situations he knew we might be under.”