Amid protest and cheers, LSU beats Vandy to claim SEC title
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Tremont Waters had 14 points and eight assists and LSU won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title with an 80-59 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday night in the Tigers’ first game without suspended head coach Will Wade.
Darius Days scored a season-high 15 points and Marshall Graves had a season-high 12 -- all on 3-pointers -- for LSU (26-5, 16-2).
Several players climbed into the student section after the game and pulled on purple conference championship T-shirts while chants of “L-S-U! L-S-U!” reverberated throughout the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Vanderbilt (9-22, 0-18) became the first team to go winless in the SEC since former league member Georgia Tech in 1954, and the first ever to do so with an 18-game conference schedule.
LSU’s triumph came a day after Wade’s indefinite suspension in the wake of published excerpts of a wire-tapped phone call between the coach and a man convicted last year in federal court of funneling illegal payments to the families of college basketball recruits.
Nearly 14,000 spectators packed the bowl-shaped arena to see LSU -- with Wade assistant Tony Benford making his debut as interim head coach -- wrap up its first SEC title in a decade. But many fans split time between passionately demonstrating solidarity with the players on every remotely positive play and protesting the administration during lulls in the action.
Boos and chants of “Joe must go!” rained down from the student section and a few other corners of the arena when athletic director Joe Alleva walked to his seat a few rows up from the sideline. Fans also called Alleva a “coward,” the implication being that LSU rushed to suspend its coach before it had conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
Many fans held up signs reading, “Free Will Wade,” and “Free Javonte Smart,” the freshman guard and former Louisiana player of the year who apparently was referred to in the 2017 call recorded by the FBI.
That was a partisan perspective anyway.
LSU’s decision to suspend Wade has been praised by conference commissioner Greg Sankey, who said he found the published excerpts of Wade’s wire-tapped phone call “very disturbing.”
Smart was held out of the game, although LSU senior associate athletic director Robert Munson stressed that decision was made “in an abundance of caution” and did not represent any knowledge of wrongdoing by Smart or his family, who Munson said were cooperating with university officials.
LSU also held out Naz Reid, but for entirely different reasons. He’d taken a hard blow to the head during a victory at Florida on Wednesday, and was given the night off with LSU already having clinched the SEC tournament’s top seed, and with higher-stakes games coming up.
Saben Lee scored 16 points and Yanni Wetzell had 11 for Vanderbilt, which struggled to stay within 20 points much of the second half.
Vanderbilt: Solid perimeter shooter Matt Ryan missed a third-straight game because of his hand injury, which only made it tougher for struggling Vandy to keep pace with an opponent atop the league standings. The Commodores spent much of the game with a shooting percentage in the low 30s before finishing at 41.2 percent (21 of 51). They were also outrebounded 38-26.
LSU: The Tigers had plenty of depth to withstand the absences of Smart and Reid against the last-place team in the SEC. The Tigers had a double digit lead within the first 10 minutes and were never threatened en route to becoming only the second LSU team in program history to win as many as 26 games in a regular season. The 1981 team holds the school-record with 27.
Vanderbilt: Opens SEC tournament play Wednesday night against Texas A&M.
LSU: Begins SEC tournament play Friday in the third round after earning a double-bye.