To say that UL-Lafayette’s basketball team was upset and disappointed at its regular-season-ending performance Saturday would be putting it mildly.
“We were going to build our image in the Sun Belt Tournament … we have no image anymore,” said senior forward Bryce Washington after the Ragin’ Cajuns were upset by Sun Belt bottom-dweller Little Rock 72-61 in overtime Saturday. “26-5 this year, none of that matters, 14-1 at home, none of that matters. Best team in school history, gone.”
Washington and his Cajuns teammates expected Saturday’s senior day to be a celebration of unprecedented accomplishments for the program. Instead, the heavy underdog Trojans spoiled the party and also put a crack in the wall of invincibility the Cajuns had created in rolling through the Sun Belt’s regular season.
“We’re disappointed, but we got what we deserved,” said Cajuns coach Bob Marlin minutes after his squad was outscored 19-8 in overtime. “We didn’t play well; we never got in any kind of rhythm. The score was low and that was in their favor, and they did a good job controlling tempo.”
The Cajuns picked a tough time for their worst shooting night of the season, hitting 19 of 57 shots from the floor (33.3 percent) and making just 6 of 31 from 3-point range. In addition, the Sun Belt’s best free-throw shooting team went 9 of 17 from the line in the second half.
Several of those came down the stretch, when UL-Lafayette saw a 47-37 lead with seven minutes left disappear amid a 16-4 Little Rock run. The Cajuns scored only four points in those seven minutes and needed two free throws with one second on the clock from Malik Marquetti to tie the game at 53 and force overtime.
Then, in the extra period, UL-Lafayette went 2 of 13, including 1 of 10 from 3-point range.
“You shoot 33 percent, you put yourself at a disadvantage,” said Washington, who had 14 rebounds but was held to seven points and four shots. “We couldn’t score on our own home court. It wasn’t on the defensive end. We had our worst shooting game, our worst 3-point game, our worst free-throw game.”
The Cajuns entered the game on a 16-game homecourt win streak, the nation’s second-longest behind South Dakota State’s 20, and they were gunning for their first unbeaten season at the Cajundome. They entered with a 26-4 record, having broken the school mark for wins in a season in Thursday’s 85-74 win over Arkansas State, and they received the trophy Saturday for winning their first outright Sun Belt title since joining the league in 1991.
Saturday’s loss tarnished those accomplishments heading into the Sun Belt tournament, which begins on the men’s side Wednesday at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. The Cajuns drew a first-round bye and don’t play until Friday’s 11:30 a.m. quarterfinal game against either Texas State or Coastal Carolina.
The tournament provides a sense of urgency for the Cajuns, and not just for redemption. The Saturday loss to the bottom team in the league’s regular season dropped UL-Lafayette from No. 35 to No. 61 in the RPI listings, pushing the Cajuns’ chances at an at-large NCAA tournament bid from slim to none.
The Cajuns are locked into a spot in the NIT courtesy of their regular-season title, and they now know that anything short of three wins Friday through Sunday in New Orleans will put them into that event instead of into their first NCAA tourney since 2014.
“Maybe this was a good thing for our group,” Marlin said. “We need to refocus. I’ve been in this position before (at Sam Houston State) where we lost at the end and we got to the NCAA tournament. But we need to have a sense of urgency. At the end of the day, we have to play better.”
Marlin said the Cajuns will benefit from a week of recovery after the disappointing home finale. His team will also know its opponent in Friday’s quarterfinal round before it hits the practice floor Wednesday, since Texas State and Coastal Carolina open the men’s tournament at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“I hope that gives us the time we need,” he said. “What I think it showed our kids was that in college basketball, you have to be prepared. The number 12 can beat the number one, and if that happens again our season’s over.”