Will Wade is fond of saying there’s a code to every lock.
Lately, though, his LSU basketball team kept punching numbers and just ended up with a big buzzing sound and a flashing sign that read “victory denied.”
Clearly, the Tigers cracked the code against Texas A&M.
Just when all seemed lost, with three straight Southeastern Conference defeats after they had stunned the Aggies and Arkansas on the road, LSU got off the deck and shocked A&M again Tuesday night by a 77-65 count. The Tigers beat the Aggies so bad, you thought Johnny Manziel was still playing for A&M.
You could certainly argue the Tigers’ 69-68 win Jan. 13 in College Station, Texas, was a fluke. Tremont Waters threw in a pair of cross-country 3-pointers in the closing 30 seconds, the second a 35-footer from the other side of the Brazos for the game winner. And Texas A&M was down three starters in that one.
Waters was back at his long-distance-dialing best Tuesday night — with the shot clock winding down and LSU’s lead dwindling, he drained another from the same spot on the court as his winning basket — but this was more than one man’s heroics.
The Tigers fought and defended and scrapped and shared the ball brilliantly. Waters, in his best game since the stunner in College Station, had nine assists and eight steals to go with his 15 points. The Tigers forced the Aggies into a season-high 20 turnovers.
LSU (12-7, 3-4 SEC) won despite the fact that, as Wade feared, the Aggies wiped the Tigers off the boards. A&M outrebounded LSU 50-30, threatening the double-digit lead the Tigers held most of the game with swarms of putback baskets.
LSU bent but never broke. There was always someone to answer the Aggies’ runs, whether it was Waters or Duop Reath (21 points) or Aaron Epps, who fouled out with a dozen points.
For some reason, the Aggies, who out-skyscrapered LSU with a healthy front line that went 6-foot-10, 6-10 and 6-9, kept trying to sink the Tigers from outside instead of pounding them down low, like Georgia did in LSU’s last home game. Texas A&M made only 6 of 28 shots from 3-point range (LSU was 8 of 18 beyond the arc) and the Tigers actually outscored the taller, beefier Aggies 40-34 in the post.
Closing out games, and closing out opponents around the basket, had become a point of pain for the Tigers in their consecutive losses to Alabama, Georgia and Vanderbilt. Except Alabama, LSU led with under two minutes to go in all of its SEC losses.
The Tigers lost all three.
“You have the lead with under two minutes left you don’t expect to go 0-3 in those games,” Wade said Monday. “You should be 1-2 at worst, probably 2-1. That is the disappointing part. That is also the part where you have the opportunity to grow and learn.”
Apparently, the Tigers did just that. They created more space and scoring opportunities for Waters, who was only 5 of 14 from the field but tapped into his imaginative geometry to spin in some crucial baskets around the rim. And they shared the scoring load that had been weighing down Waters’ young shoulders, with Daryl Edwards chipping in a quiet 12 points and Brandon Sampson coming off the bench with nine more.
Now what to make of LSU and its postseason hopes? After beating Texas A&M and walloping Arkansas 75-54 on the road, the Tigers were starting to get some bracket buzz as a team worthy of consideration for an at-large NCAA tournament berth.
That talk cooled considerably after the Tigers’ three-game losing streak dropped them to No. 101 in the NCAA RPI. But this was LSU’s fifth top-50 victory: two against A&M plus Michigan, Houston and Arkansas. That’s eyebrow-raising for sure.
The near future remains mighty challenging for the Tigers. On Saturday, LSU travels to face resurgent Auburn (which entered Tuesday with the SEC’s best RPI at No. 8), followed by a visit to Tennessee, a brutish, physical team like Texas A&M that presents a matchup issue for LSU.
But after that, if the Tigers don’t get too down on themselves, there is still a chance for considerable achievement. There are winnable games left on the schedule — namely at home against Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri, Vandy and Mississippi State.
Seventeen wins could have the Tigers in the conversation for an NIT bid. Eighteen wins might do it.
That’s a code these Tigers can still crack if they fight through their limitations — and crack the code of some quality teams not named Texas A&M.