Even on a night when UL-Lafayette tied its season turnover high and struggled to make shots for most of the first half, it eventually became business as usual Thursday night.
In fact, not long after the Ragin’ Cajuns had roared past South Alabama 76-57 for their eighth straight Sun Belt Conference win by double digits, coach Bob Marlin said his team’s biggest concern was the jersey color.
“We won’t be wearing black any more,” Marlin said after his team and most of the 5,036 fans on hand wore black for a “blackout” promotion night at the Cajundome. “I don’t think the guys wanted to do it to start with, and we certainly struggled at times. We didn’t play as well as we can and won by 19, so not bad for a conference game.”
UL-Lafayette (18-3, 8-0) never trailed in remaining unbeaten in league play, but USA did rally back from a 13-point deficit with eight minutes left in the first half to tie the game four minutes later. That was as close as the Jaguars got; the Cajuns went on a 14-4 run spanning the two halves and were ahead by double figures throughout the final 12 minutes.
“We knew they were going to play and they were going to make their runs,” said senior Johnathan Stove. “It wasn’t anything they were doing or we weren’t doing; we just got into a stretch when we couldn’t make a shot. But our guys don’t panic.”
The Cajuns (18-3, 8-0) continued their race through the Sun Belt with Thursday’s win, which made their league winning streak 14 games heading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. home contest against Troy. The Trojans are the last Sun Belt team to beat the Cajuns in the regular season with a 100-88 win in Troy last Feb. 11.
UL-Lafayette outscored the Trojans by 11 points from the field in that game, but Troy attempted 50 free throws and made 40. One month later, Troy won the league tournament title.
“I missed the whole second half of that game,” said Marlin, who was ejected after picking up his second technical. “I was asked to leave, so I’m going to go back and look at the tape and maybe I can get caught up on it.
“But this will be a quick turnaround for us. You’re talking about a different animal with Troy. This group tonight (USA) hit two 3-point field goals, and (Troy's) Wesley Person’s the Sun Belt career leader in 3-pointers and they’ve got other guys that can make them. They’re a very good offensive team.”
The Trojans (9-12, 3-5) showed that in Thursday’s first half at UL-Monroe, when they hit six 3-pointers and built a 15-point lead early in the second half. But ULM used 3-point accuracy of its own in rallying for a 76-71 win.
Person ranks third in the league in scoring (19.2) and leads the Sun Belt in 3-point baskets. In the Sun Belt, only Appalachian State has more 3-pointers than the Trojans (191). It will be a challenge for a Cajuns defense that has held six straight opponents to less than 40 percent from the floor, after USA’s 37.5-percent mark Thursday.
“We know we can score and put up points,” said senior forward Bryce Washington, who had 16 rebounds Thursday and moved into fourth place on the all-time Sun Belt career list. “Our goal is to keep every team under 40 percent. It’s defense that is going to win games.”
Washington celebrated his 22nd birthday by moving within striking distance of a milestone. He needs 24 rebounds to become the third Cajun in history with 1,000 career rebounds and already is fourth among active players nationally in career rebounding.
“That’s just will,” he said. “Every rebound’s a fifty-fifty ball. But I’m chasing something that I really want. That’s my job. We know our roles on this team, and my role is to rebound. I love that more than I love scoring.”
TOUGH TASK FOR WOMEN: UL-Lafayette’s women’s squad will face its second straight tough test Saturday when the Ragin’ Cajuns welcome defending Sun Belt Tournament champion Troy in the second game of a doubleheader following the men's game.
The Cajuns (10-10, 5-3) lost 72-57 at home to South Alabama on Thursday in a game that wasn’t that close, with UL-Lafayette trailing the second-place team in the Sun Belt standings by 31 points late in the third quarter. The Cajuns hit only 27.9 percent of their shots (12 of 43) in the first three quarters and had only 28 points before a 29-point fourth quarter.
Before that loss, UL-Lafayette had won five of its previous six games and had moved into third place in the league standings.
Troy (9-10, 4-4) is by far the top scoring team in the Sun Belt, averaging 83.1 per game (15th nationally) after an 86-79 win at UL-Monroe on Thursday. The Trojans trailed midway through the fourth period but outscored ULM 16-8 over the final 4:21 to take their second straight win.