The last time that Louisiana-Lafayette’s basketball team left the state for a true road game, it wasn’t a good experience for any of the Ragin’ Cajuns.
That trip came in the season opener when the Cajuns lost a 10-point halftime lead and watched Ole Miss stretch their advantage late on the way to a 94-76 win in Oxford, Miss.
“The first game of a season is always the toughest,” said senior forward Bryce Washington, who went 1-for-9 from the field against the Rebels. “We went into a hostile environment, something that we weren’t used to, but we learned from it. We’re a better team overall now.”
The record proves that, with the Cajuns (10-2) taking a six-game win streak on the road Friday. This time, though, they’ll face an even hotter team, with Clemson standing 10-1 and coming off a 64-48 rout of South Carolina on Tuesday night. The first meeting between the teams is 2 p.m. Friday at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Despite that record and a win over a ranked Florida team in last week’s Orange Bowl Classic, Clemson has yet to break into either of the national polls.
“That’s surprising,” said Washington, who has bounced back from that disappointing opener and is averaging a double-double (10.3 points, 10.2 rebounds). “They’ve flown under the radar, a team that’s 10-1 and not getting talked about, that’s surprising to me.”
The only other time UL-Lafayette has traveled outside the state since that Nov. 10 opener was a journey to the Cayman Islands Classic, where the Cajuns won two of three games. An 82-76 victory over Richmond in the third-place game there started the current win streak, one that has included five straight wins over Louisiana foes.
Cajuns coach Bob Marlin was glad for the stretch but said this week’s trip is different from the bus journeys the team took to Ruston and Thibodaux for wins over Louisiana Tech (75-71) and Nicholls (105-80).
“It’s been nice, to be honest, to be home in December,” he said after Tuesday’s 82-74 home win over Southeastern Louisiana that gave UL-Lafayette its 16th straight win over Louisiana schools. “We’ve had a lot going on in our athletic department, and we’ve been able to practice, recruit, our guys have been able to improve. But now we’ve got to get back in it.”
Friday’s game comes before a brief Christmas break, but in effect it begins a three-game road swing that includes the Sun Belt Conference openers at Little Rock Dec. 29 and Arkansas State Dec. 31. The Cajuns, picked fifth in the preseason poll, have the best record in the Sun Belt entering league play.
“We’re a lot more together as a team,” said junior forward JaKeenan Gant, who has double-figure rebounds in his past two games after a 14-point, 12-rebound outing against SLU. “We’re playing more with each other, talking more, we’re giving each other confidence. Our defense is a lot better.”
Gant is part of that defense. Along with scoring 20 or more in four of his past five games, the Springfield, Georgia, native leads the Sun Belt in blocks (2.3 per game) and has more blocks (28 total) than personal fouls (27). The last time the 6-foot-8 Gant did not score in double figures was against Ole Miss, and he currently leads the Cajuns in scoring (17.0).
Friday’s game will be a homecoming of sorts for Georgia native Gant and Columbia, South Carolina native Marcus Stroman, who played his first two collegiate seasons at South Carolina and ranks second in the Sun Belt in assists (6.3) despite playing only 24 minutes per game.
“It’s a great opportunity to take Marcus back home,” Marlin said. “He was recruited by Clemson before he signed with South Carolina. JaKeenan was recruited by Clemson twice, out of high school and when he transferred. That’s where I thought he was going until the last minute, a year ago in August.”