LSU Florida Basketball

LSU guard Javonte Smart (1) drives to the basket while defended by Florida guard Jalen Hudson (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Javonte Smart got the news less than two hours before the LSU basketball team’s quarterfinal matchup against Florida in the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday.

Smart received a call from interim coach Tony Benford as the Tigers were boarding the bus at their downtown hotel to take them to Bridgestone Arena for the game, which No. 9 LSU went on to lose 76-73.

It had been a good day until then for the Tigers, and it got better when they received the news from Smart himself.

“He actually told us,” guard Skylar Mays said. “He came onto the bus and said, ‘I’m free!’ We didn’t know until then.”

Smart’s status for the game was unknown for days after he was held out of last Saturday’s regular-season finale against Vanderbilt while university and NCAA officials investigated a report of an FBI wiretap containing comments from coach Will Wade.

On the wiretap, Wade is reportedly heard telling convicted sports agent Christian Dawkins about an “offer” to get Smart to join the LSU program. Wade was suspended indefinitely by the school one day before deciding to hold Smart out.

Upon his return Friday, Smart did what he could to help LSU advance to the semifinals with 13 points, three rebounds and two assists.

But his efforts weren’t enough when Florida’s Andrew Nembhard drained a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds to play to eliminate the Tigers.

LSU officials issued a statement after working with the NCAA to resolve Smart’s status.

“Smart has fully cooperated and participated in a joint inquiry with LSU and the NCAA resulting from reports of wiretapped conversations purportedly involving Head Coach Will Wade,” school officials said in its statement.

“Though the inquiry is not closed, after multiple additional interviews, there has been no wrongdoing identified to date.”

Benford said he called Smart at 9:45 a.m. to let him know what he wanted to hear.

“He was really excited,” Benford said. “His teammates were all on the bus … and they ran off the bus. They were excited he was going to be available.”

In a postgame interview session, Smart was asked if he had any knowledge of the offer Wade was quoted as saying on the wiretap.

“No, sir, I have nothing to do with that,” he said.

He was then asked about how he dealt with the uncertainty of his status going into the SEC tournament.

“It’s a lot on your mind,” he said. “My family was behind me. My coaches and my teammates, they told me stay in there, stick in there, just keep faith in God.

“Always keep faith in God. He gave me the chance to come out here and help my guys. We failed today, but had a good game.”

Smart said that was easier to do after getting the OK to play. In addition, he said they had good practice sessions before leaving Baton Rouge.

“The team, they welcomed me back,” Smart said. “We had a good practice the other day and I was just ready to come out and help the team.”

And they were ready to have him back.

“The guys who have been with him every day since June, we pretty much know how much he loves the game and how much he loves playing with these guys,” Mays said. “Of course, we want him out there with us. We knew how tough it was on him.

“He did a great job of masking it while continuing to bring positive energy every day. It was great to have him out there … he played really well and I was happy for him.”

Advocate sportswriter Scott Rabalais contributed to this report.


Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.