SAN MARCOS, Texas — As it turned out, it wasn’t so hard for UL-Lafayette’s basketball team to play at the pace it wanted Saturday afternoon.
The Ragin’ Cajuns took control early against a ball-control Texas State squad, bolting out to an 18-4 lead in the game’s first 10 minutes and never looking back in rolling to an 80-55 win over the Bobcats at Texas State’s Strahan Coliseum.
UL-Lafayette (17-3, 7-0) led by as many as 29 points in the final four minutes in what became a battle for first place in the Sun Belt Conference with the results of earlier Saturday afternoon games.
But after the first seven minutes, when the host Bobcats managed to keep it within 5-4 and neither team could find the basket, the Cajuns went on a 13-0 run to build a double-figure advantage and kept that margin the entire second half.
Texas State (13-8, 6-2) drew its largest crowd of the season and came in matching the Cajuns’ six-game win streak in Sun Belt play, but fell victim to 7-of-32 shooting (22 percent) in the first half and had no field goals in the final five minutes before halftime.
Johnathan Stove’s dunk at the halftime horn gave UL-Lafayette a 32-20 lead, and a three-pointer by Frank Bartley and a put-back dunk by JaKennan Gant in the first 75 seconds of the second half gave the Cajuns all the momentum they needed in taking their seventh straight double-digit win in league play.
“We beat a good basketball team today,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “That team (Texas State) was off to its best start in 14 years, but we were able to push the lead up at the half and made some big shots to start the second half. That kind of deflated those guys a little bit.”
The win gives UL-Lafayette a two-game lead over the rest of the league heading into home games against South Alabama and Troy on Thursday and Saturday. The Cajuns have also won 13 straight Sun Belt regular-season games dating to the final six games of the 2016-17 season.
Malik Marquetti had a career-high 19 points, hitting six of seven shots and going 5-of-6 outside the arc, but Marlin said his defensive performance was more important in the big win. The junior from Compton, California, drew the assignment of guarding Bobcat leading scorer Nijal Pearson (14.3) in UL-Lafayette’s man-to-man defense, and held Pearson to a season-low five points on 2-of-13 shooting.
Pearson had been held to single-digit scoring only one other time this year, when he was held to eight in a November win over Texas-Corpus Christi.
“We challenged Malik to do that and he accepted that challenge,” Marlin said. “It was one of our big goals to take him out of the game, and we were able to do that in the first half. We really felt their other guys weren’t experienced enough to beat us if we kept him under control and that’s what happened.”
Bartley and Justin Miller added 14 points each, with Miller hitting back-to-back three-pointers midway through the second half that gave the Cajuns their first 20-point lead of the game at 50-29. Miller had hit only four three-point shots the entire season and matched that total Saturday.
Freshman Shelby Adams was Texas State’s only double-digit scorer with 10 points as the Cajuns held the Bobcats to 32 percent shooting (19-of-59) and to only three three-pointers. The 20 first-half points by Texas State marked the fifth time this year that UL-Lafayette held a team to 20 or fewer points in a half, and going back to Thursday’s 77-65 win at UTA, the Cajuns allowed only 41 points in Thursday’s second half and Saturday’s first half.
“I really like the way this team’s playing defense,” Marlin said. “Ever since the start of conference play, we’ve continued to play better defensively, and this was against a team that is very solid offensively … solid on both ends of the floor, actually. To hold a team to 32 percent on the road is impressive.”
Meanwhile, the Cajuns hit 13-of-25 three-pointers, tying their second-highest three-point total of the year and their second-highest percentage. Marquetti and Miller were a combined 9-of-13 outside the arc.
With the Cajuns’ victory and Georgia State’s win over Georgia Southern earlier Saturday, every other Sun Belt team has at least two conference losses. UL-Lafayette is off to a 7-0 league start for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
“We finally got some help today,” said Marlin, whose team has now swept both the Arkansas and Texas swings in conference play for the first time since the Sun Belt went to its current alignment. “If you want to finish at the top of this conference, you have to beat people head-to-head and that’s what we’ve done on these road trips.”