JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- LSU could feel all its haters out there, even though the Tigers could not see them. They said it all week in Jacksonville, and they said it again even more loudly after beating Maryland with a heart-stopping, last-second layup Saturday afternoon that gave LSU guard Tremont Waters his own special place in March Madness history.
"They didn't even pick us to beat Yale!" Tigers forward Emmitt Williams screamed across the locker room.
"A lot of people counted us out," guard Javonte Smart said.
It became convenient to pick against the Tigers after a month filled with uncertainty threatened to sink what had otherwise been a dominant season. After LSU blew a 15-point second-half lead against the Terrapins, perhaps some who doubted thought they might be vindicated. But the Tigers, who played in so many close games this season, huddled up and decided that Waters would be the guy with the ball in his hands for the game-winning shot.
"What was designed is what happened," LSU assistant Greg Heiar said with a huge smile on his face. "Tre made a real unbelievable play."
Waters went inside off a screen from Tigers big man Naz Reid, then worked his way around Maryland forward Jalen Smith and threw the ball up toward the rim on a banking layup. It dropped through the net with 1.6 seconds remaining, and LSU won 69-67 to advance to its first Sweet 16 since 2006. That also happens to be the last time LSU made the Final Four.
Waters found himself at the bottom of a celebratory dog pile when the last whistle sounded.
"Just the feeling," he said afterward. "It feels amazing."
Interim coach Tony Benford now finds himself in rare territory: The only other interim coach to take a program this far in the tournament was Michigan's Steve Fisher, who led the Wolverines to the national championship in 1989.
What it took to get to this point is a separate story. LSU rolled to a top-10 ranking and had its eyes on the SEC championship. Then, in early March, reports surfaced that coach Will Wade was caught on a wiretap discussing a possible payment to a player, and the narrative shifted dramatically.
Benford, then an assistant coach, was on the road recruiting at the state basketball tournament in St. Charles, Louisiana, the day the story broke. He returned to LSU that night. The next day, LSU's athletic director suspended Wade and tapped Benford as interim coach.
Benford assured his players that nothing would change. Outsiders were skeptical.
"I know a lot of people didn't believe in him," Smart said. "Since we didn't have Coach Wade, they expected us to fall. But we have faith in him, and we have faith in each other. He just talked to us and said, 'We're going to keep going. We're going to keep attacking.'"
LSU went out one night later and clinched the SEC regular-season title, and the Tigers did it without Wade or Smart, the freshman who was held out of the game while the school investigated whether he was the player discussed in Wade's wiretapped phone call.
Smart was cleared for the SEC tournament, but the Tigers lost to Florida in the quarterfinals, and suddenly, this LSU squad had many questioning not just how far Benford could take the team but also whether the team should play in the NCAA tournament at all.
Wade has not sat down to talk with LSU officials, so he remains suspended and back home in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, his coaches and players have had to discuss the distractions, their feelings about the situation and how Benford has handled it.
Benford was the first assistant Wade hired when he took over at LSU in 2017. Although Benford never had a winning season in five years as head coach at North Texas, he has earned respect from coaches across the country for his tireless recruiting and ability to build relationships with his players.
LSU players say they have responded to Benford because he listens to them, and he listens to his fellow assistants.
"Coach Benford says he has no ego in this game," Waters said.
At every turn, Benford has shifted the focus away from himself and toward his players.
"It's huge for these guys," Benford said of advancing to the Sweet 16. "They're the ones that paid the price. They've been through a lot. We know the story of adversity these guys have gone through."
Even before Wade was suspended, the players rallied together after teammate Wayde Sims was shot and killed in September. They wear a patch on their jerseys honoring him. Guard Skylar Mays wears Sims' number and the date he died on his shoes as a reminder that what LSU is doing is bigger than all of them combined.
For his part, Benford has guided his players without being overbearing or imposing his will.
"He's been thrown in the fire, thrown to the wolves, and we're doing everything we can to help him out," Tigers forward Darius Days said. "We're not giving him a hard time. We're taking care of business. I'm happy that we have him. Even though we don't have our real head coach, he stepped in, he took care of business, and now we've got to take care of business for him on the court."
Benford gave Waters the ability to run the offense -- the keys to the team, as the players say. It was no surprise, then, that the final play against Maryland came down to Waters.
"It was there all game, and I told Coach, I said, 'Coach, we've got this. I see what it is,'" Heiar said. "When you're in those situations, you want to have a play that works against man or zone. The middle was wide open against that zone, so we wanted to come out and have a play that would work against man or zone."
Heiar said Waters' eyes lit up when he was told the play was for him. As it unfolded and his teammates watched, they all believed -- maybe because nobody else did.
"God made the ball go in," Waters said in the celebratory locker room. "Wayde Sims made the ball go in."