LAFAYETTE —A Louisiana team enters a state rivalry game Monday night atop the Sun Belt standings.
But, surprise! It’s not defending tournament champion Louisiana-Lafayette. It’s the rejuvenated Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, who managed all of 10 wins a season ago.
Thanks to a school-record five-game Sun Belt winning streak, ULM is the league leader at 5-1 going into Monday’s 7:15 p.m. contest with the Ragin’ Cajuns in the Cajundome.
The Warhawks (11-6) already have topped their win total of last season, and they moved into first place with a 64-52 home win over Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday.
The Cajuns (10-7, 4-2) could have set up a battle for first place between the teams but had a defensive meltdown in the second half and were upset 89-82 by South Alabama on Saturday, their second conference loss in a row.
“We knew exactly what they were going to run. We had them scouted, but we didn’t defend them,” coach Bob Marlin said after watching USA hit 20 of 30 shots in a 54-point second half. “The first half we played well for a stretch, and then we didn’t play well in the second half.”
Playing well hasn’t been a problem for ULM, which lost its league opener 65-45 at Georgia State but has run off five straight wins since. Three of those wins came at home, where the Warhawks are 8-0, and all were by single-digit margins until Saturday’s victory.
“The whole roster has improved, and that showed,” ULM coach Keith Richard said after Saturday’s win. “I thought we played really well, except for missing a bunch of wide-open 3s in the first half against their zone. We were playing great defensively and really good offensively; we just couldn’t make a 3.”
Defense has been the hallmark of the Warhawks, who haven’t won six straight since the 1998-99 season. ULM enters Monday’s game leading the conference and ranked in the top 25 nationally in field goal percentage defense (.373) and 3-point defense (.283), along with allowing only 60.7 points per game. The Warhawks haven’t allowed an opponent to reach 75 points this season.
The Cajuns are the Sun Belt’s highest-scoring team, averaging 81.8 points, and they have topped 80 in nine of their past 10 games. The only lull in that run was Thursday’s 78-70 loss at defensive-minded Georgia Southern, when the Cajuns shot only 38.6 percent to end a four-game winning streak.
The Cajuns shot 39.7 percent in Saturday’s loss and made only 11 of 35 attempts after halftime.
“We didn’t make shots,” Marlin said. “I thought we executed our stuff at times, but (USA) shot 10 less shots and made five more. They gained more confidence each possession.”
Shawn Long had a 22-point, 22-rebound performance in the loss; it was his 42nd double-double and was tied for the sixth-highest rebound performance in school history. But he struggled with a 6-of-18 shooting mark against the Jaguars’ double-teaming defense.
“Things happen,” Long said. “We still have a lot of basketball to play. In my opinion, I think we’re the best team in this conference — hands down. I’m disappointed, but we’ll get in the gym and make sure we fix it for Monday. The team we play Monday is three times better than the team we played (Saturday).”
ULM will answer Long inside with junior Majok Deng, who had 14 points and a career-high 15 rebounds against UALR for his fourth double-double of the year. Senior Tylor Ongwae (13.9 points, 6.6 rebounds) leads the Warhawks in scoring, and senior Marvin Williams is the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Week while carrying averages of 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds.
“We’ve got to focus on the next game since we’ve got only a one-day prep,” Marlin said. “(ULM is) obviously playing very well. Right now, it’s about eliminating your losses.”
Women seek fourth straight win
The UL-Lafayette women will go for their fourth straight win Monday when they face UL-Monroe at 5 p.m.
The Cajuns (11-4, 3-3) started league play 0-3 but have rebounded with wins over Georgia State, Georgia Southern and South Alabama. UL-Lafayette had four double-figure scorers in Saturday’s 65-58 comeback win, paced by 15 each from Jaylyn Gordon and Keke Veal. They forced 21 turnovers, their 10th game causing 20 or more miscues this season.
ULM (5-10, 1-5) has lost three in a row and seven of eight, its only win since mid-December a 63-51 road victory at Texas-Arlington on Jan. 8. On Saturday, ULM lost 79-41 to visiting Arkansas-Little Rock, the Sun Belt leader.