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LSU interim head coach Tony Benford coaches against Vanderbilt, Saturday, March 9, 2019, at LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La. LSU won 80-59 to clinch the outright Southeastern Conference title.

Considering everything that happened in the 30 hours leading up to the LSU basketball team’s regular-season finale Saturday night, it wasn't hard to think it could go a little sideways for the Tigers.

Actually, it could have gone a lot sideways.

• The head coach, whom the university suspended indefinitely Friday amid reports of recruiting improprieties, watched the game on a big-screen TV at his home — with the sound off.

• One star player was held out of the game by school officials after his name came up on FBI wiretaps that recorded a conversation between Wade and a convicted recruiting middleman.

• Another star was sidelined because of injuries he sustained during Wednesday's grueling overtime win at Florida.

The task looked daunting with only three assistant coaches and six scholarship players available, but No. 10 LSU wasn’t fazed one bit.

The Tigers looked like themselves — minus Will Wade, Javonte Smart and Naz Reid — in their thorough 80-59 pounding of Vanderbilt.

The win, which gave LSU the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship outright, was what a mostly angry crowd that packed the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to its rafters came to see.

The title, which was assured earlier in the day when Tennessee lost at Auburn, was the school's first since 2009 and 11th all-time — second-most in SEC history behind Kentucky’s 49.

That LSU prevailed despite the obstacles wasn’t a shocker — Vanderbilt went winless in SEC play and had lost a school-record 18 games in a row — but the Tigers never missed a beat.

Under extenuating circumstances, interim coach Tony Benford and the entire LSU team were simply unflappable.

Here’s how they did it: Benford, with help from what he called his “co-coaches,” played the part of Wade perfectly.

Then, Darius Days played Reid and Marshall Graves played Smart.

As Wade likes to say, “It wasn’t anything crazy.”

Simply put, LSU did exactly what it did in winning 25 games overall and 15 SEC games going into Saturday’s contest.

The Tigers’ 26 regular-season wins are the second-most in school history behind Dale Brown’s 1981 Final Four team, which had 31. The 16 SEC wins are also second-most behind the ’81 team's 17.

It’s not yet known what’s going to happen with Wade and Smart in the SEC tournament this week or NCAA tournament that begins next week.

But the regular-season finale proved the Tigers aren’t going to just roll over, regardless — with apologies to Wade, Smart and Reid — of who’s coaching or playing.

That they won with everything seemingly going awry is a tribute to Wade’s meticulous scouting of opponents and preparation — along with Benford and fellow assistants Greg Heiar and Bill Armstrong — and the ability to get the plan across to their players to execute on game day.

Of course, it helped that the opponent wasn't Tennessee or Kentucky, but the Tigers still had to play the game and win it.

The postgame celebration, complete with net-cutting at both goals and shiny purple and gold streamers that rained down from the catwalk, might not have been so festive if LSU had to share the title with Tennessee, which fell out of a first-place tie with LSU when it lost to Auburn earlier Saturday, and Kentucky.

So taking care of their own business was the No. 1 goal going into the game.

“All we control is what we can control,” Benford said he told the team before Friday’s practice, just after Wade was suspended. “Today … right now."

When the lights were flipped on Saturday night, the Tigers were ready to finish what they started.

Benford leaned on Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays to be coaches on the floor to help the staff out, which they had no problem doing as two of the team's elder statesmen.

“Those guys did a great job,” Benford said. “I said, ‘Guys, you’re going to have to help me.’ When you have a guy like Tremont Waters, it makes it a little easier, too.”

Waters played another all-around game. He finished with 14 points and eight assists on the offensive end, then had four rebounds and four steals on defense.

“I had to take on the role of being the coach on the floor more than I usually do,” he said. “We didn’t do anything different. We tried to space the floor out, run read offense and move the ball.

“We had to get stops and we did a great job of that,” Waters said. “My teammates did a great job of listening and knowing that I had to make calls. When you have great teammates, it’s hard to go in the wrong direction.”

Mays finished with 13 points and four assists.

“Tremont was the coach on the floor. … He did a great job facilitating, knowing when to score and knowing when to make throws,” Mays said. “It’s something he’s been great at all year. I'm proud of him and all these guys.”

The Tigers were especially proud of Days and Graves, who stepped up to combine for nine of LSU’s 12 made 3-point field goals.

Days was 5 of 6 from 3-point range in scoring a career-high 15 points and Graves, a walk-on, was 4 of 8 in putting up a career-high 12 points.

As thrilled as he was for himself and his team, Graves was happier to see Wayne and Fay Sims climb the ladder to snip a piece of the nets for their late son, Wayde.

Graves and Mays were high school teammates of Wayde Sims, who was killed just hours before the start of preseason practice in late September.

“It meant a lot for me especially, knowing Wayde as long as I have,” Graves said. “It was an incredible moment. If anybody deserves to go up there and cut those nets down, it’s them. … It was a special moment.”

Like the entire evening for the Tigers and their fans.


Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.