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LSU, Maryland's opponent in NCAA tournament, motivated by teammate Wayde Sims' murder

His number can be found in memorial patches on the jerseys of the LSU players. Junior guard Skylar Mays takes it one step further, personalizing his right sneaker with Wayde Sims’ name and the day he died.

Much has been made about the third-seeded Tigers being motivated to make a run in the NCAA tournament because their coach, Will Wade, was suspended earlier this month amid allegations of recruiting improprieties.

That might be the case going into Saturday's Round of 32 game against sixth-seeded Maryland at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, but a bigger factor in LSU’s overall season goes back to the fatal shooting of Sims.

“That hit a lot of us, that hit the whole city and it hurt us,” said freshman guard Javonte Smart, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La. “Every time we do something, it’s for him.”

It happened Sept. 28, the night before the Tigers were to officially start practicing. According to police and media reports, the 20-year-old Sims was trying to break up a fight outside a party at nearby Southern University.

Junior guard Marshall Graves, who had known Sims since they played together for two years in high school, said news spread quickly that there had been an incident involving Sims.

“It was really late and being on your phone and stuff like that, it kind of popped up in a group [text] message,” Graves said. “You heard it, like something happened to Wayde, but you weren’t really sure. It was kind of a shock.”

In announcing Sims’ death at a news conference the following day, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva called it “the saddest day of my career.”

Three days after Sims died, police said that Dyteon Simpson, also 20, confessed to shooting the LSU player in the head.

Sims was well-known in the LSU community since his father, Wayne, had played for legendary coach Dale Brown from 1987 to 1991 and was a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal for two of those seasons.

Despite many of the team’s younger players — including Smart and fellow freshman Naz Reid — not knowing Sims well after arriving on campus in June, Mays said, “Wade was the kind of guy you’d gravitate toward. If you’d meet him for a week, you would feel that he was your brother. He built that relationship with all of us. It’s always been about him to me and to all these guys, just playing for him.”

It carried the Tigers to a 16-2 Southeastern Conference record and their first regular-season SEC title since 2009. A victory Saturday would give LSU its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2006, when the Tigers beat Duke and eventually lost to UCLA in the national semifinals.

Assistant coach Tony Benford, who took over when Wade was suspended before the last regular-season game, said the loss of their coach seems almost minuscule at times compared to the death of a teammate.

“That really made these guys a tighter-knit group, brought them closer together, more trust and respect for one another, and it made it easier for us to coach them,” Benford said Wednesday.

Benford attributes his team’s ability to win close games — the Tigers had six league games go to overtime and won five — to how the players bonded after Sims’ death.

Graves agreed.

“I’ve never been part of a team that has the chemistry that we have,” Graves said Friday. “We have a special type of chemistry. We have the word ‘FAMILY’ across our shirts and we say ‘Family’ on three in the huddles. With the team, it really is true. We really are brothers.

“I always say situations like that can either break a person or make somebody. It really had the potential to break us. Nobody would have been mad at us if we had just went under the covers and cried about it. We came together and fought for our brother.”

While the circumstances are different, LSU has done many of the same things that the Maryland football team did after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke in June.

As the Terps did for McNair, the Tigers made a makeshift memorial at Sims’ locker at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. They also dedicated their season to his memory.

Bruce Buggs, who serves as coordinator of student-athlete mental health for all of LSU’s teams, said he has closely monitored the players to see how they dealt with their grief.

“It’s about making sure they’re aware of what stage they are in their grief,” Buggs said Friday, sitting in the team’s dressing room. “Usually they’re all on the same page and kind of check in with each other.”

Mays said he was aware of the situation at Maryland after the Terps upset then-No. 23 Texas in the football season opener.

“When you hear stories like that, you obviously feel sorry for those who are going through it, but you never expect it to happen to you,” said Mays, who also grew up in Baton Rouge and knew Sims since they were 7. “I can feel him with me and it gives me drive to lead these guys and try to do everything I can to help these guys win.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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