Less than 24 hours after the LSU picked up a signature win against No. 5 Kentucky, it’s virtually impossible to say just how much the victory meant for the seemingly up-and-coming program.
But damn, it sure feels big.
As for the season itself, the game served as about as big of a statement as a team could make. Not only did LSU establish itself as one of the SEC’s best teams this season, it showed it could beat any given team in the country on any given night in any given environment.
Normally when the Tigers defeat a team with the talent and pedigree of the Wildcats, it feels like a fluke. Like something unordinary must have broken LSU’s way that helped the overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
But that’s not what we watched Tuesday night.
LSU didn’t win in any fluky manner. Sure, Kavell Bigby-Williams’ buzzer-beating tip-in was probably still over the rim, but Kentucky forward EJ Montomery’s hand was in the basket as the shot was in the air, which also constitutes goaltending, so that point is moot.
No, the Tigers went into Rupp Arena and went toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with the SEC’s and one of the nation’s most prestigious and, in the moment, hottest programs, and came away with a victory.
Remember, it was Kentucky that had to overcome a five-point deficit in the final two minutes of the game, not LSU.
As much as Kentucky controlled the tempo in the first half, LSU never let the Wildcats build a double-digit lead, something Will Wade was wary of going into he game considering the Tigers’ recent history of needing second-half comebacks to win games.
In fact, it seemed as though Kentucky was the team catching breaks for much of the game. Tremont Waters didn’t look like his normal self, and after hitting their first three 3-pointers of the game, the Tigers went 3-for-18 from behind had the arc for the rest of the game.
LSU star freshman forward Naz Reid picked up his third and fourth fouls in the span of 90 seconds, the second of which came with 13:50 left in the game, taking away LSU’s best offensive option in the post.
Darius Days, normally LSU’s second-best big man option on offense then picked up his fourth foul 39 seconds later, putting the onus on Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams to carry LSU’s post for much of the second half.
Williams, the former five-star prospect that has come off the bench for the Tigers in SEC play, shined in the spotlight with the pressure on, going on a spree that not only kept LSU in the game, but aided it in completing the nine-point comeback with a spree in which he hit four shots and picked up a pair of key blocks.
During one sequence in particular he blocked a shot on defense, hustled down the floor and got a layup that put LSU up by two possessions for the first time all night.
It would be easy to call a performance like that by an unlikely player an anomaly, but these kinds of performances players throughout LSU’s rotation from players stepping up in key moments seemingly happen every week.
Every time LSU hits the floor, it seems like someone else steps and makes things happen, so while it would normally be unconventional to call a team with an 8-man rotation deep, it’s not hard to classify LSU’s roster as such.
And yet the biggest winner of LSU’s victory against Kentucky was undoubtedly Will Wade. He would never admit that as he didn’t take a step on the floor, but the victory is a monument to what he’s been able to accomplish at what was a middling program at best when he arrived in the span of less than two years.
In my life time (which I understand is a relatively short time period all things considered, but bear with me), the Tigers have had only one real spurt of success, and that was never really sustained.
The 2000 Sweet 16 team was followed up by two teams that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, as was the 2006 team that beat 1-seeded Duke and 2-seeded Texas on its way to the Final Four.
They were great basketball teams, but by all practical means, they were flashes in the pan.
This feels different. This feels like something that could become the norm here in Baton Rouge.
Will Wade brought in one of the best recruiting classes LSU has ever seen, and he’s transformed them from a ragtag group of young athletes who struggled to beat teams like Louisiana Tech and close out games against Florida State and Houston into a cohesive unit that just one its 10th SEC game in mid-February by beating one of the country’s most storied programs in one of the toughest places to play in college basketball.
Nothing is set in stone, but if we truly are at the beginning stages of a golden era of LSU basketball, this is the game we will look back on as the one that started it all.
Is LSU a basketball school? Not yet. But it sure is starting to feel like it could be.