Flair for dramatic could come in handy

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, March 24, 2019

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s hard to shake old habits, perhaps, and maybe LSU is still, at heart, a baseball school.

Or else you’d have to explain what in the world that mob was in front of the Tigers’ bench early Saturday afternoon. It was after yet another nail-biter, another brush with five-alarm heartburn, the close call that came right down to the buzzer …

Boom — LSU 69, Maryland 67.

And …

There’s no dog-piling in basketball!

Never mind the hoops thing seems to be working out pretty well for LSU these days in spite of lot of off-court distractions, an interim head coach, an uncertain future and a lot of doubters.

Blah, blah, blah.

Just win, baby.

No, wait, that’s football.

By the looks of the Tigers’ bench right after Tremont Waters’ twisting, half layup, half-finger-roll winner against Maryland, you’d have thought the Tigers were headed to Omaha.

Skylar Mays, whose steely-eyed 3-pointer with 40 seconds remaining set the wheels in motion for a hectic final seconds, started it all.

The dog pile, that is, as well as the winning sequence.

He pulled Waters down on top of him, and next thing you knew others were joining in, en masse, looking for all the world like they were headed for the College World Series.

All were present and accounted for, little worse for the tonnage, including Mays at the bottom.

“My adrenalin was going, I was OK,” he said. “Naz (Reid, the 246-pounder) must not have got on me. I’d have felt that.”

“I was the bottom,” Waters said. “And just the feeling it feels amazing.”

Despite the look of the dog pile, the next stop won’t be Omaha, but rather Washington, D.C., for LSU’s first Sweet 16 appearance since the Tigers’ 2006 team started a Final Four odyssey right here in Jacksonville.

That run, too, had a late winner in the second round here when Darrel Mitchell hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Texas A&M in overtime.

But this time you almost had to wonder what the fuss was all about.

It wasn’t ho-hum, exactly.

But these Tigers do this sort of foolishness all the time.

Just say it was old hat.

Yeah, they had the big 15-point lead and total control in the first half — oh, this is going to be easy.

Then they got a little sloppy in the second half, the cold spell checked in right on schedule and Maryland will probably be kicking itself for not playing a zone defense the entire game instead of just the final 16 minutes — LSU, despite allegedly practicing against it in anticipation of just such a sinister ploy, looked as if it had never seen such a thing.

Anyway, Maryland had all of the momentum, most of the crowd and probably some silly notion that it was going to win.

The Tigers abruptly looked like a team without a real head coach or, maybe worse, a head coach by committee.

But LSU is a team that’s been in a school-record seven overtimes this season (5-2) and has had 18 games decided by six or fewer points.

Like Saturday — and certainly not Thursday when roughly the same MO turned the first-round win over Yale into a white-knuckler — not all of them probably had to get that close.

But you play the cards you’re dealt.

And sometimes it is nice reference point.

“They’re not afraid of the moment,” interim head coach Tony Benford said wistfully, as if he wished they’d try another way.

“We’re there in the huddle. We weren’t playing as well as we needed to and Skylar just said, ‘Coach, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to win the game.”

“We just kind of figure it out,” Mays said. “I can’t really put a scheme on it or whatever.”

Whatever it is, it’s working.

When not bringing up all the controversy and distractions — better get ready for the LSU jokes about next week’s site, Capital One Arena, being a couple of fast breaks away from the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. — suddenly the uninitiated are marvelling at the athleticism of the Tigers.

That’s nice to have.

But from here on out, close games will be expected, probably the norm.

That “clutch” gene could come in handy again, and might be more important.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com