An 87-82 upset win over No. 11-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday night warmed LSU men’s basketball fans as they left the ice-cloaked Pete Maravich Assembly Center and made their way home.
The crowd had to exit through the floor level because the arena’s foot ramps had frozen over. Outside, they encountered slippery roads and a campus slickened by sleet. Many streets were barricaded, deemed unsafe by police.
A day later, school officials and others were left answering the question of whether the game should have been played.
A decision was reached between LSU and Kentucky officials and the Southeastern Conference office by 3 p.m. Tuesday to play the game as scheduled at 8 p.m.
Afterward, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said he drove home, picked up his wife, Annie, and headed back to campus as the weather conditions began to deteriorate.
“Even though school was closed, at about 3 p.m. the roads were fine,” Alleva said Wednesday. “At 3 p.m. we could have played. But between 3 and 6 it really got worse.
“In retrospect, if I had known how bad it would get between 6 and 8, I would have fought to cancel it. But by 6 p.m. it was too late to cancel.”
Because both teams, game officials and game support personnel were in place —Kentucky’s team flew into Baton Rouge on Monday, long before the storm arrived — SEC officials decided to let the game be played.
According to Alleva, the SEC has ultimate authority to decide whether a game should be played as scheduled based on input from the schools participating, but namely the host institution.
“We always want to make the safety of our student-athletes, coaches and fans as the primary focus,” said SEC Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth, who oversees men’s basketball for the conference.
“It was the recommendation of all those involved that the conditions were acceptable to at least host the game,” Whitworth noted. “The officials were there, the teams were there, the TV network (ESPN) was there, all the parties involved.”
An estimated 6,000 fans, of those about 3,400 students, braved the icy streets and sidewalks to attend the game. LSU announced total tickets sold at 12,124.
As freezing rain and sleet came down harder Tuesday evening, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux admonished motorists to stay off the roads, saying they should not be venturing out unnecessarily.
Wednesday, the sheriff said he would have rescheduled the game had it been his call.
“I know there’s a lot of factors involved with their schedules and I’m sure some monetary issues, as well,” Gautreaux said. “But I think public safety should always come first and foremost. From a public safety standpoint, they would have been better advised to postpone the game or reschedule it.”
After speaking with Kentucky and the SEC, LSU President F. King Alexander said LSU had two options: Hold the game as scheduled, or move it from its Tuesday night slot to noon Wednesday.
Alexander said the decision to advise the SEC that the game could be played was ultimately his call, a decision influenced by the large number of students on campus left with little to do.
“We decided our students were getting restless, we had no reason in the world to disadvantage them,” Alexander said. “We felt we could do it safely.”
Alexander said his decision started taking shape early Tuesday when he met with students in one of LSU’s dining halls.
“The first question they asked was, ‘Is the game still on?’ ” Alexander said. “I also talked to the women’s basketball team. Their question to me was, ‘Is the game still on?’ They wanted something to do that night.”
For his part, Alleva said athletic department officials visited dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses and blitzing social media, enticing them to venture out to the game with the promise of free hot dogs and soft drinks.
“God bless the fans who came,” Alleva said. “That was terrific.”
LSU used a skeleton staff during the game — just enough to handle security and hand out free hot dogs — in order to minimize the number of people who had to drive to campus, Alexander said.
“Most of the students walked over,” Alexander said. “We thought that if all we were going to have was an arena full of students, we’d be fine with that. Everyone else could watch it on TV,” he said. “Often times, we don’t do enough for our students. This is a demand we felt we could meet.”
LSU Police handled the winter storm much like it would a hurricane. The department called in its entire squad of patrol officers and formed two 12-hour shifts, allowing it to double its presence with 15 to 20 officers on the roads at any given time, said Capt. Cory Lalonde, an LSU Police spokesman.
About five or six of those officers were assigned to work Tuesday night’s game.
“We had additional officers we could have re-allocated if necessary,” Lalonde said, noting the game drew a smaller attendance that required less manpower than usual.
Ice blanketed a number of roads on campus. The frozen intersection of West Chimes Street and Infirmary Drive proved particularly problematic for some fans leaving the game as they attempted to climb an icy hill. LSU police closed some roadways because of heavy icing, and Lalonde said the game did not impact any decisions about closures.
“Anything that was deemed unsafe as far as travel, we shut that down,” he said. “Whether we had a game or not, that did not affect the decision of whether those areas were going to be blocked off.”
Only one traffic accident was reported to LSU Police Tuesday night: A hit-and-run about 10 p.m. in which a motorist slid off Nicholson Drive and struck a fence and vehicle.
“We do know from different cameras and things of that nature that there were some other minor traffic crashes that were not reported to us,” Lalonde said.
Mike Chustz, an East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services spokesman, said there were no calls for service from campus during the game relating to any injuries.
While the LSU-Kentucky game was played as scheduled, SEC officials did postpone Wednesday night’s scheduled men’s basketball game between Alabama and Auburn at Auburn to 7:15 p.m. Thursday.
Whitworth said the decisions on the two games came from totally dissimilar circumstances.
“Alabama could not get out” of Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, Whitworth said. “It’s a bus trip for them. Alabama notified us they were unable to bus based on the recommendation of the (Alabama) state police and their charter company.
“It was a situation where they could not get to their game site. It’s completely different from the situation in Baton Rouge because Kentucky was already in Baton Rouge.”
Alexander said LSU was not pressured into the game by ESPN, a sentiment echoed by Alleva and Whitworth.
“This wasn’t done for money,” Alexander said. “We did not get any pressure from ESPN. We weren’t going to do this because of ESPN and money. This was about giving our students something constructive to do.”
Tuesday night’s weather conditions forced the Kentucky team to stay over in Baton Rouge instead of flying immediately back home as is customary for most teams following regular-season games.
Kentucky’s team flew back to Lexington, Ky., Wednesday afternoon, according to UK Sports Information Director Tony Neely.
LSU has a women’s basketball home game set for 7 p.m. Thursday against Mississippi State. The LSU men’s next game is at 4 p.m. Saturday at home against Arkansas.