LAFAYETTE — With the continuation of its season on the line, Louisiana-Lafayette’s men’s basketball team turned to one of the best players in school history for a game-winning shot attempt.
Trailing by one with 2.3 seconds to go, Bryce Washington inbounded the ball to Shawn Long — who was the second option on the play — from midcourt. Long caught the ball at the top of the key, split a pair of defenders and shot a runner from a step inside the 3-point arc.
The shot was off the mark, hitting high off the backboard to the right of the rim, ending the Cajuns season in a 67-66 loss to the Anteaters of UC-Irvine (27-9) in a CollegeInsiders.com quarterfinal game at the Cajundome.
After the play, Long jumped up and down howling for referees to call a foul, as Irvine’s Jonathan Galloway looked like he might’ve made contact around the time Long released the ball, but the referees did not call the foul.
“It’s disappointing, but what do you do?” coach Bob Marlin said. “You get the call, or you don’t.”
It was an exciting finish to an exciting game that featured a pair of lead changes in the final 23 seconds. Jay Wright capped a 6-0 run with 23 seconds to go with a leaning runner from the block that gave the Cajuns a 66-65 lead.
The Cajuns (19-15) made it a priority to take away guards Alex Young, who finished with a game-high 21 points, and Luke Nelson, who led the team in scoring this season. The ball ended up going to forward Mike Best down near the paint.
Best spun and shot an off-balance shot from about eight feet over Long’s outstretched arm. The ball bounced on the rim a couple of times before falling home for what turned out to be the winning bucket with 3.6 seconds to go.
“The guy drove, and when he took the shot, Bryce made him fade away, which is good defense, then Shawn came in and tried to block the shot, which is even better,” said sophomore guard Johnathan Stove. “We’re thinking, bounce, go get the board, go get the board, bounce, bounce, bounce. Then it dropped in.”
That final minute was a bit different from the rest of the game, which featured the Cajuns rallying from a couple of big deficits.
The Cajuns had already mostly eliminated a 16-point first half deficit when the Anteaters scored eight straight to start the second half and push the lead back to 15.
The Cajuns began the long climb back into with a better defensive effort and points in the paint. Like they’d done for much of the season, the Cajuns were competitive even when the 3-point buckets weren’t falling. Tuesday they made just three of their first 20 attempts from beyond the arc.
Then Wright, who was 0-for-5 from the floor and 0-for-3 from the 3-point line up to that point, knocked down a 3-pointer with a hand in his face to cut a UC-Irvine lead that had once been 16 points down to one.
“My team brought us back, and I tried to do my best to finish it off for us,” Wright said.
On the next possession, Kasey Shepherd, who was 1-for-7 from the floor and 1-for-6 from 3-point range to that point, connected on one of his own with 6:13 remaining in the game to give the Cajuns their first lead of the game at 59-57.
Things couldn’t have started much worse for the Cajuns, who were down by double digits before they could blink.
The Cajuns started just 2-for-16 from the floor, including an 0-for-7 mark from the 3-point line. UC-Irvine was not afflicted with the same slow-starter syndrome.
Fueled by some hot shooting from guard Alex Young, the Anteaters jumped out to a 21-5 lead in the first eight and a half minutes of the game. Young scored 11 consecutive UC-Irvine points at one point in that stretch, knocking down three 3-pointers and a jump shot in a span of 2:20.
That 16-point deficit was the Cajuns largest of the first half, but they roared back to make it competitive before the break.
“Basically, we just played harder,” Stove. “They got off to a great start, and we were just sluggish. It was like we didn’t want to be there at first. Coach Marlin called a timeout and he got on all five of our starters.”
Devonta Walker got it started by attacking the lane and drawing fouls to get to the free throw line, where he made four of his five first half attempts.
Some shots finally started to fall after that. After an 0-for-8 start from 3-point range, Shepherd finally made the Cajuns first triple of the night with 5:55 to go in the half. Long followed that with a big put-back slam to cut the Anteaters lead to single digits.
At halftime, Marlin had some sage words for his players.
“I said, ‘This game won’t be like this. It’s going to go back and forth, it’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be fun,’ ” he said.
He was right, even if it ended in a loss.