ST. LOUIS — Ben Howland has seen just about all there is to see in nearly his 60 years around the game of basketball.
But he’s never seen anything quite like Tremont Waters.
The freshman gashed his Bulldogs for 28 points and 6 assists in the SEC Tournament opener for both teams, which Howland’s Bulldogs won, 80-77. Waters single-handedly – and single-maskedly – nearly flipped that result, with yet another trademark performance in a memorable freshman season.
“To think he’s just a freshman,” Howland marveled after the game. “I looked at him in their warmups, and he did a windmill dunk, and he’s about 5’9″ and a half. He is some athlete. And his ability to hesitate and then quick burst to get by you is really special.”
Waters hesitated more than he bursted early, trying to adjust to the mask protecting a broken nose suffered Monday in practice while diving for a loose ball. He practiced with it Wednesday but didn’t wear it in warmups, and though he scored 11 points in the first half, he admitted to a level of discomfort.
“I had never played with a mask on,” Waters said. “I didn’t practice really hard with it over the past few days. Coach just told me just to not think about it, just to go out and play. So like the first few minutes, it was kind of messing with me a little bit. I just kept thinking about it.”
At some point, the sensation subsided. Waters’ play did not. His second half was even better than his first, featuring 17 points and 6 assists, as LSU nearly overturned a 19-point first half deficit behind a smaller lineup. It was the smallest of that lineup that had the biggest impact.
“Second half, Coach just told me just really not think about it,” Waters said. “Just play and think about something else besides, obviously, the mask. So I came out driving and just creating for my teammates and making plays.
“And from there, it went downhill. We didn’t get the win.”
Waters wasn’t the only freshman with a big showing in the Show Me state. His classmate, Brandon Rachal, came off the bench with perhaps his finest effort as a freshman, scoring 10 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. He also swiped four steals and was a team-best plus-13 in 32 minutes. Neither he nor Waters left the floor after halftime.
“(I) just accepted my role,” Rachal said, “and my teammates trusting in me and my coaches trusting in me, and me being confident to go out there and be the glue guy for this team, make the plays, and do what I got to do to stay on the floor and do my best to help.”
Rachal’s versatility allowed LSU to go small after halftime. With Duop Reath and Aaron Epps combining for just 7 points and 5 rebounds, Will Wade opted to play Rachal, a 3 by trade, at the 5, with four guards around him. That allowed the Tigers to switch the ball screens they couldn’t guard in the first half, resulting in eight of their 11 steals coming in the second.
“Our bigs weren’t doing anything,” Wade said. “Duop and Epps weren’t doing anything. We don’t have any other big guys, so you’ve got to try something. We’re not going to sit there and try the same stuff and expect things to change. They were 0 of 5 from three. They got five rebounds. Rachal had nine rebounds himself. So when they’re not playing — I mean, we gave up an offensive rebound. We subbed one of them back in. If they’re not playing, what are we supposed to do? I kind of like the small lineup to be honest.”
He liked the night Waters had, too.
“Pretty much what he’s done all year for us,” Wade said. “That’s what we get pretty much every night from him. The only reason we’re in a lot of games.”
Waters showed his penchant for clutch plays, too, despite the defeat. His layup with just over a minute left pulled the Tigers within five, and his 30-footer with less than 10 seconds to go made it a one-point game. With a win barely within reach, Waters wans’t about to hide behind the mask.
“It’s not a moment that I shy away from,” Waters said. “I was trying to just make a play, and I’m kind of used to doing it because I work on it.”
That might’ve been an LSU lead instead of an LSU deficit, if not for a play Wade called “an elementary school” play. With 1:38 to play and the Tigers down five, Waters hit the front-end of a one-and-one that would’ve shrunk the gap to four, but Brandon Sampson ran in from behind the arc before the ball hit the rim, giving the ball back to the Bulldogs and deflating LSU’s hopes of a comeback.
“I’ve never seen — I don’t know where the heck that came from where we ran in there,” Wade said. “Tre’s our second best free-throw shooter. Why in the hell are we — I’ve never seen that. It’s like an elementary school. When’s the last time anybody saw a play like that? That’s just a — I don’t even know what to say. I don’t know what to say. It was going to be a four-point game. Makes the second, it was a three-point game. 1:38 left. I mean, just what can you say? I mean, I guess I’ll say it was an aggressive mistake.”
It was an aggressive comeback, too, if an incomplete one, led by a freshman sensation with a bright future.
“Waters was the key,” Howland said. “What did they do special? He just went crazy. I think he’s really that good.”