Cajuns put focus on the next step after frustrating narrow NCAA tournament loss _lowres

Louisiana-Lafayette's Bryant Mbamalu shows his frustration after he was called for a foul against Creighton during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament Friday, March 21, 2014, in San Antonio. Creighton won 76-66. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

LAFAYETTE — Just like during its run in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin knew his team would need some big efforts from a lot of sources to pull off an NCAA tournament upset.

The Ragin’ Cajuns couldn’t make that happen in their West region second-round contest Friday against Creighton in San Antonio despite at one point holding a four-point lead in the second half.

“It reminded me so much of our game against Arkansas earlier in the year,” Marlin said Monday. “We had the lead, we were up by four and it was right there, and we end up losing by 13.”

That 76-63 loss in mid-November was followed by an 87-68 setback two nights later at Baylor — the same team that thumped Creighton 85-55 on Sunday. That left UL-Lafayette 2-2 on Nov. 17, and not many expected the Cajuns to wind up winning the Sun Belt tournament and finishing 23-12, their final mark after Friday’s 76-66 loss to the Bluejays.

Marlin and his team would have relished a rematch with Baylor, one he thought was going to be a reality when the Cajuns led 50-46 with 12:15 left. But third-seeded Creighton responded with 10 straight points — none of them from All-American Doug McDermott — and never trailed again.

The Cajuns were still down only 68-64 with 2:27 left on two Elfrid Payton free throws before the Bluejays pulled away. McDermott, the fifth-leading scorer in Division I history, scored five of his game-high 30 in an 8-0 run that sealed it.

“Certainly defensively we were concerned with McDermott, but we were just as concerned with their other guys” Marlin said. “(Ethan) Wragge hurt us in the second half with three big 3s, one of them when we had the four-point lead. We needed either (Xavian) Rimmer or (Bryant) Mbamalu to have another big game, and they went a combined 3-for-17.”

Those two had combined for 107 points in three Sun Belt tournament games, with Rimmer going 14-of-28 from outside the arc. Against Creighton, Mbamalu was 1-for-12, and Rimmer was scoreless from three-point range.

Payton finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and a lone turnover in what Cajuns fans are hoping wasn’t his last game in a UL-Lafayette uniform. The junior guard from John Ehret High School is projected as a late first-round NBA pick should he decide to bypass his senior season.

Payton, who didn’t turn 20 until late February, wound up averaging 19.2 points, six rebounds and six assists. He also averaged 2.3 steals, led the Sun Belt in assists and steals and ranked second in scoring.

Marlin said he and Payton will meet this week to discuss the future.

“My role will be to be what it’s been all season,” Marlin said. “I was on the phone all morning, gathering information to help facilitate him with his decision. I’ll provide information to him, and I’ll support him whatever he decides.”

Payton will have a presence in the Cajuns’ 2014-15 season either way, since Marlin said he’s facing a scheduling dilemma. It’s likely even fewer name-brand teams will want to come to the Cajundome if Payton product returns.

“We’re having a little trouble getting teams into home dates,” Marlin said. “It’s always been tough to get people to come here, and now after winning more home games than we’ve won in 23 years (13-2), it makes it even harder.”

The NCAA appearance didn’t help in that area, but Marlin said it would help in every other part of his program.

“It’s the best free advertising you can get,” he said. “We’re definitely going to use it in recruiting, and we already have. It’s interesting to call up different prospects and ask if they had any advice on guarding McDermott. And we’ll use what Elfrid was able to accomplish, regardless of the decision he makes.”

The Cajuns will lose seniors Mbamalu (12.3 ppg) and Elridge Moore (4.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg) from their rotation but will return all-Sun Belt pick Shawn Long (18.6, 10.4), the conference’s leading rebounder and No. 3 scorer. Long also led the league by a wide margin in blocks (2.7) and surprisingly in 3-point shooting percentage (.486) in Sun Belt games.

“We thought that Elfrid could get us to that stage and Shawn could take us to the next level,” Marlin said of the NCAA tournament. “Shawn’s done that for us all season, but he picked up two quick fouls. It was a great experience. ... We gave our best effort, and it wasn’t our day.

“That’s the beauty of our sport: You have to be on top of your game, or you’re sent home. We needed to have a big game, and unfortunately we didn’t have it.”