NEW ORLEANS — Effort made it a game Saturday for the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team, but it was not enough to make up for Little Rock’s hot shooting and the Ragin’ Cajuns’ mistakes.
The Cajuns played their hearts out against top-seeded Little Rock in the Sun Belt Conference tournament semifinals, but the Trojans made the shots when they needed them and the Cajuns gave them too much help as they were eliminated from NCAA tournament contention with a 72-65 loss in Lakefront Arena.
“It just wasn’t enough today,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “We had to play better to beat a Little Rock team that is very good.”
The Trojans (28-4) scored 27 points off 18 Cajuns (17-14) turnovers, including six points off five turnovers in the final 3 minutes, 46 seconds.
“We had too many turnovers down the stretch to win a game like this,” Marlin said. “Our goal was to have 10 or less, and we had 18. ... You can’t win a game like this against a team who is playing very good, hitting big shots, by turning it over.”
While the Cajuns made a valiant run, erasing a double-digit deficit by making 13 of their final 18 shots, the Trojans one-upped them, making 14 of their last 18.
“When you’re down, the idea is to not trade baskets, something that we ended up doing,” senior guard Kasey Shepherd said. “We were a couple shots short, and that ended up killing us in the end.”
Still, even with those factors working against them, the Cajuns were right in this game against the Sun Belt front-runners. That was thanks to the efforts of Shepherd and senior forward Shawn Long, who scored 31 of their combined 43 points in the second half.
The Cajuns were trailing by 12 when Long started a furious comeback by making a 3-pointer early in the second half. That started a 15-3 run that the Cajuns used to storm back and tie the score at 38 with 11:57 to go.
Long had 10 points during that run, but Marlin saw an opportunity to get him a breather. It was the only time all game that he put Long — who played a game-high 37 minutes — on the bench, and the Trojans used it to their advantage.
Little Rock scored on four straight possessions with Long out of the game, starting with a pair of baskets in the paint and ending with back-to-back long 3-pointers by senior guard Josh Hagins, pushing the Trojans’ lead back to five.
Long checked back in, but the Trojans were rolling. A few possessions and another 3-pointer later, and the Trojans’ lead was back up to double digits.
The Cajuns weren’t done, thanks to Shepherd. The senior made 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, then picked up a three-point play on a drive to the basket, scoring nine points in 2:22 to cut the deficit to five points.
But the closest the Cajuns would get the rest of the way was three points on Jay Wright’s driving layup with 2:25 to play. That was also the last shot the Cajuns made.
The game was all Little Rock early. The Cajuns had nearly as many turnovers (eight) as field goals (nine) in the first half, and the Trojans bounced back after a sluggish start to take an 11-point lead into halftime.
The Trojans only scored two points in the first six minutes, but reserve forward Jalen Jackson changed that in a hurry. He checked in at the 14:56 mark, scored his first basket with 13:22 to go and then proceeded to outscore the Cajuns 11-3 over the next 3:47.
“He was huge,” Marlin said. “They probably weren’t expecting that going in.”
Fueled by Jackson’s outburst, the Trojans suddenly couldn’t miss. Jackson’s fast-break dunk over Jay Wright started a string of nine consecutive field-goal attempts made by the Trojans.
In that more than seven-minute stretch when they didn’t miss, the Trojans turned a three-point deficit into a 12-point lead.
Little Rock will play No. 2 seed Louisiana-Monroe in the conference tournament championship game at noon Sunday. The Cajuns should know by Sunday night whether they will continue their season in a postseason tournament.