JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Moments after LSU players mobbed Tremont Waters following the game-winning basket that sent the Tigers to the Sweet 16, the staff and players raised four fingers on each hand while facing the contingent of supporters behind the bench. It was a tribute. Not to their missing coach, but instead to their fallen teammate.
As much as we all want to make this about Will Wade, it’s not.
This is about Wayde Sims.
Sims is the former LSU player and Baton Rouge native who was shot and killed just prior to the start of practice back in late-September. That’s why the team puts up four fingers on each hand, in memory of Wade’s No. 44, before and after each game.
“I got emotional after the game just thinking about him,” said team leader Skylar Mays, who knocked down a critical 3-pointer in the closing minute. “I think about him all the time.”
The incident occurred early on a Friday morning on Sept. 28 outside a frat party just off Southern University’s campus when an argument turned into a fight, Sims tried to intervene and wound up being shot.
It was a shocker, especially because no one ever said a bad word about Sims. He was outgoing, funny and everyone seemed to like him.
Sims and Mays are boyhood buddies. They have known each other for 15 years. The pair both grew up in Baton Rouge, dreaming of playing for their hometown Tigers. Sims was entering his junior season and hopeful of being a key piece in a team that had lofty expectations.
His locker in Baton Rouge has remains untouched. The team wears the No. 44 patch directly underneath the NCAA emblem on their uniform. Mays takes it a step further with the date of his passing, along with his jersey number, inscribed on his shoes.
“He’s still a part of our team,” Mays said. “He’ll always be a part of our team.”
LSU brought in McDonald’s All-American Naz Reid, in-state standout Javonte Smart and also talented forward Emmitt Williams to a group that returned Mays and a potential All-American point guard Tremont Waters. There were lofty expectations but no one expected an SEC regular-season title. Not with Kentucky and Tennessee both being considered Final Four-caliber teams.
But Sims has provided added motivation to a team that has even more these days with the indefinite suspension to their coach. Will Wade sits at home, watching his team and his players in the NCAA tournament after a Yahoo Sports report alleges that an FBI wiretap exists in which Wade is talking to noted runner Christian Dawkins about a “strong-ass offer” involving Smart.
The players have been continuously asked questions about Wade and acting coach Tony Benford, and they understand the distractions will only ring louder each step they take in March – and possibly even April. Benford, who spent five seasons as the head coach at North Texas, has provided an even-keel approach that has been important to stabilize the emotions that this team has endured.
“It’s about the players,” Benford has maintained. “They’re the ones that paid the price. They’ve been through a lot.”
However, Wade’s absence has been the added incentive to try and get the program back to the Final Four for the first time since the improbable run in 2006 that also happened to start in Jacksonville.
It’s not just one more reason to get to Minneapolis; it’s the main reason.
“We’ve been through a lot, through hell and back,” Williams said after the win. “But nothing compares to losing our teammate.”
“It puts everything else in perspective,” Mays added.
The players have handled the adversity well, including Smart, who was suspended for the final game of the regular-season while the school investigated the allegations. He was quickly reinstated for the SEC Tournament and has continued to play a pivotal role coming off the bench for the Tigers.
LSU certainly made it interesting in the second half against Maryland but the Tigers advanced and now head to Washington, D.C., where they’ll play the winner of the Michigan State-Minnesota game.
“It’s tough. All I can think about if my fallen brother Wayde and how he’s with us,” Mays said. “That this is all for him.”