NCAA Maryland LSU Basketball

LSU interim head coach Tony Benford shouts to his players during the first half of a second-round game against Maryland in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This is why people love March. For the Madness.

And no one does madness like LSU.

Actually, the Tigers’ madness started long before Tremont Waters weaved from near mid court, sliced past Maryland’s twin grain silos of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith and scooped a hoop for the ages off the glass with 1.6 seconds left for the 69-67 win.

This was LSU’s 18th game this season decided by six points or less. The Tigers have played seven overtime games. Time and again this team leaves its fans reaching for an oxygen mask, but the Tigers seem to like it best when they take all the air out of the room.

They certainly seem to be the only ones who aren’t sweating.

Maybe because all the stress has been conditioned out of them.

Before the first Mercury astronauts went into space, they went through simulation after simulation of their missions. By the time they were actually up there whizzing around the globe at 17,000 mph, they had been so conditioned they would look out the window at the Earth and go “Humph” instead of shrieking with fear into their headsets.

So LSU blew a 15-point lead with 16 minutes to go and trailed by three with five minutes left? They’ve practiced worse-case scenarios than that.

“The coaches do a great job of putting us in adverse situations in practice with the six-minute games that we do,” Skylar Mays said. “We’ll start the six minutes down seven, and usually when it applies to the game we’re not in a situation where it’s as bad. So we feel like we’re prepared for it and can figure out a way to win.”

Simple. Right?

There has been nothing simple about this LSU season. It has been as controversial and convoluted and amazing and heartbreaking as anything you have seen in your life. From Wayde Sims death on Sept 28 — Mays has Sims’ number 44 and the date 9/28/18 written on the toe of his right shoe — to the Will Wade FBI wiretaps and suspension to the SEC regular-season championship to this.

Maybe there is a sweet bonus to this Sweet 16 for LSU. Maybe school officials can go to FBI headquarters in Washington, a few blocks from where the East Regional will be played at Capital One Arena, listen to the Wade wiretaps firsthand, and use that info to break the impasse and get Wade back on the court.

Just kidding, of course. One doubts the FBI lets people listen to their wiretaps like they’re downloading a song onto their iPhone.

Whatever has happened to sour this LSU season, it is all forgotten for now. The Tigers have reached the tournament’s second weekend for just the third time since 1987.

That’s how precious these moments are for LSU basketball. Rare gems set against the darkness of losing seasons past and whatever may come after.

But that’s a worry for another day, like next month’s credit card bill. Today, LSU celebrates the chance to advance to the East Regional semifinals on Friday, where it will take on Michigan State.

How easy it would have been for these Tigers to fold after all they had been through. Simulated six-minute games or no, nothing can truly prepare you for the vice-grip of NCAA tournament pressure until it has you by the throat. You held off Yale on Thursday, 79-74? Kudos, kids. Come back and do it again. Every round is the knockout round.

But these Tigers are cool like diamond cutters. Down 64-62, Mays made two enormous, stabilizing free throws with 1:13 left. He then came back down and drilled a 3-pointer for a 67-64 lead with 36.8 seconds left, much like the 3 Darrel Mitchell made here to lift LSU to a 58-57 second-round victory in 2006 over Texas A&M.

Then Waters. Ice Waters. Knowing the right angle of attack to the basket and the right angle off the glass to break Maryland hearts and start LSU hearts pumping again.

Mitchell was watching from his couch in Lafayette, feeling his legendary shot all over again. Sensing what special quality this LSU team has that kept their season going.

“I’m impressed with how close they are,” Mitchell said. “They remind me of our '06 team. They’re not selfish. They just want to win. And they don’t care who does what.

“I’ve said it over and over again; I think they have a real good chance to make it to the Final Four.”

First things first. Being one of the four teams in the East Regional semis will have to suffice.

Interesting time to be visiting our nation’s capital, don’t you think?

With all that drama, the Tigers will fit right in.


Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​