The last time UL-Lafayette’s basketball team had an early-season stretch equal to its current success, Bill Clinton was president, Beanie Babies were the Christmas gift rage and the World Wide Web was in its infancy.
That was the 1993-94 season, when the Ragin’ Cajuns opened on an 11-2 run. That season, the Cajuns ended up 22-8, winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and playing Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Bob Marlin isn’t ready to predict that kind of success, but he’s also not putting it past this season’s squad.
“This has been fun,” Marlin said after the Cajuns rolled past New Orleans 87-65 on Saturday night at the Cajundome for their sixth straight win. “Our guys have been prepared every game and done a good job. UNO’s got a good club and they came in with something to prove. They didn’t let us get separation, but in the second half we stayed with it and continued to execute and make the plays we need to make.”
Saturday’s performance gave UL-Lafayette (9-2) its 28th straight regular-season non-conference win at home, dating to 2012, and its 15th straight over in-state competition. Five of those wins against Louisiana teams have come in the Cajuns’ past five games — wins over Louisiana Tech and Nicholls on the road and McNeese Loyola and UNO at home.
The Cajuns have a chance to make that six in a row Tuesday when they host Southeastern Louisiana in their final non-conference home game.
“These are good games for us,” Marlin said. “They’re state rivals. I like playing teams from Louisiana. It’s good travel; it’s good for our fan base. I’m hoping we can continue that.”
Marlin’s also hoping that his team strings together more performances like Saturday’s. The Cajuns shot better than 50 percent from the field and outside the 3-point arc in each half, had 21 assists on 29 baskets, shot 92 percent from the free-throw line after halftime and only had 10 turnovers on the way to putting five players in double-figure scoring.
Junior forward JaKeenan Gant reached his double-figure plateau in the game’s first seven minutes on his way to a 17-point first half. But he was more proud of a career-high 11 rebounds that helped UL-Lafayette win the rebounding battle (33-24) for the fourth straight game.
“Coach has been talking to be about rebounding more, being more aggressive on defense,” said Gant, who hit 7 of 10 shots in the first half. “I needed to get more active on the offensive boards and get more touches around the rim.”
Marlin had challenged the 6-foot-8 Gant to get to double-figure rebounds. But Marlin doesn’t want him to stop attacking the rim as he has through UL-Lafayette’s past 10 games, all of which have featured at least two throw-down dunks from the Missouri transfer. One of his Saturday slams was a spectacular one-hander in traffic on a lob from point guard Marcus Stroman that landed the Cajuns on SportsCenter's Top 10 plays for the night.
“Plays like that, those are momentum changers,” Marlin said.
Senior guard Frank Bartley, a Baton Rouge product, had his own momentum shift Saturday. After going scoreless in the first half, Bartley hit five of six shots, all three of his 3-pointers and six straight free throws in a 19-point second half that helped the Cajuns extend a 42-35 halftime advantage.
“I went to Frank at halftime, and he hadn’t scored,” Marlin said. “I told him he had until the first media timeout to get a defensive rebound. He snatched the first one and we scored on the other end.”
Bartley had 10 points in the first five minutes of the second half and all three of his 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes.
“I just tried to not force as many shots and let the game come to me,” Bartley said. “I forced some shots in the first half, but Coach’s first play (in the second half) got me a good look at the 3. I saw it go in, and I just tried to be efficient from there.”
Efficiency has been a hallmark this season for the Cajuns. UL-Lafayette goes into Tuesday’s game against SLU — the first meeting between the teams since the 1984 Bayou Classic — ranked fifth nationally in assists, 13th in scoring and in the top 25 in turnovers forced.
“This is an entertaining group,” Marlin said. “The fans that have come out have seen that.”