The first four shots that left Tremont Waters’ hands on Tuesday night failed to fly true.
So he stopped shooting, momentarily, and started passing.
By night’s end, Waters would find his shot, set an LSU assists record, and lead the Tigers to an 88-78 win over Vanderbilt, clinching a winning regular season in Will Wade’s debut season and continuing LSU’s momentum toward the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Waters scored 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting and dished out nine assists to set a new school record for freshmen. He scored or assisted on 13 of the Tigers’ final 15 second-half points and knocked down their final four field goals – all layups – to hand LSU consecutive wins for the first time since January,
“I was yelling at him to do one thing, and he had already seen it beforehand, which was a read he couldn’t have made a month before,” head coach Will Wade said of his freshman point guard. “He was really locked in. He was on it tonight, making good reads, simple reads.”
Before Waters could create for himself, he first had to create for others. When his first four jumpers were off the mark, he set to setting up his teammates, finishing the first half with six assists. Seven of his nine dishes led to LSU dunks or layups; the other two, catch-and-shoot 3s.
“Vandy knew I was going to come out and shoot,” Waters said, “so the coaches said to attack the paint, get in the SEC (logo), spray the ball out. That was able to open me up and get me free to make shots.”
Make shots, he did. He buried 10 of his next 14 attempts, including a three-pointer from the Cox logo as the halftime buzzer sounded.
He wasn’t the only Tiger with a hot hand. Wayde Sims, in his first start since December 16, scored 16 points on 6-of-6 shooting. Starting in the place of Duop Reath, who scored 31 points in the first matchup between the two teams but has battled an ankle injury of late, Sims repaid Wade’s faith early, outscoring his counterpart, Jeff Roberson, 5 to 2 in the first seven minutes. His 3-pointer at the 14:40 mark put the Tigers ahead 11-7.
“It was all the matchup,” Wade said of starting Sims. “Duop was healthy tonight. They were playing so small. It was going to be tough.
“(Sims) has hit threes in back-to-back games. He’s certainly making up for lost time, which is good. I’m proud of him. He’s been working hard.”
“I knew I was going to start the day before the game,” Sims said. “I knew Duop’s ankle was kind of messed up and that I had to step up in his role.”
When Sims headed to the bench, Roberson, who finished with 20 points, took advantage, sinking a corner 3 to tie the game at 13, before Brandon Sampson’s own corner 3 broke the tie. Sims returned and laid in two bunnies fed by Waters, putting LSU ahead 26-20 on a pick and roll after Sims’ block on the other end.
Waters would score or assist on 13 of 15 points for the Tigers to close the half up 10. Vanderbilt would close the gap to five on a Riley LaChance (26 points, 9-of-18 FG) jumper, but Waters would double that deficit by halftime, hitting Sims on an alley-oop for his sixth assist of the half and burying that deep 3 to send the Tigers into the locker room leading 39-29.
LSU scored the first five points of the second half to push the lead to 15 before Roberson stopped the bleeding with a three-point play. Waters then found Aaron Epps (15 points, 8 rebounds) for a dunk – giving him the LSU freshman record for assists in a season at 159, surpassing Ben Simmons’ total of 158 from 2015-16 – before Skylar Mays (14 points, 4-of-6 FG) found Sims for another slam and a 48-35 Tiger lead with 17:13 remaining.
“Good job Ben Simmons,” Waters joked afterward. “My parents and I worked really hard on creating my character to be a giver. It just translates on the court.”
A three-point shooting contest soon broke out. Waters knocked down two in a row, while Vanderbilt, which connected on 14 3s for the night on 39 attempts, hit three, two from LaChance, the last cutting LSU’s edge to eight. Randy Onwuasor (7 points, 3-of-4 shooting) joined the party with a triple of his own to send the Tigers’ lead back to 11, 64-53, with 10 minutes of action left.
“I thought the big key in the second half was we answered them 3 for 3 there for a while,” Wade said.
Vanderbilt cut it to five on two free throws from Peyton Willis with less than eight minutes to play before Waters connected with Onwuasor for a lay-in and laid in another himself following a steal. Saben Lee’s first 3 of the night pulled Vanderbilt back to within 71-65 and offset Waters’ ensuing layup with one of his own to make it 73-67 LSU at the final media timeout.
Waters added two more layups to seal the victory, and Mays and Epps each hit four free throws to close.
The win pushed LSU, among the First Four Out of the NCAA Tournament according to BracketWAG before the game, even closer to the bubble. Wade said earlier in the week he hadn’t talked with his team about the postseason, but said after the Vanderbilt win he’s brought up the topic in the locker room.
“I told our guys, I’ve addressed it a little bit with them,” Wade said. “I said, ‘I’m not saying this to put pressure on you, but pressure’s a privilege. It beats the hell out of not playing for anything.’ We certainly have stuff ahead of us. That’s why we work.
“The key to having great seasons is you have to dig out some big wins in February. This is why we’ve worked so hard. Are we going to be able to dig some of these things out? Are we at a point now where we get on the big stage and we get into some of these games, can we do it? The answer earlier in the year was no. We’ll see how it goes now. I think we’re more mature, but we’ll see.”