Louisiana-Lafayette pushed the game to its pace, overcame a horrendous cold streak, and got key defensive stops late in regulation and in overtime. They also had a healthy Kasey Shepherd, and all of that combined to give the Ragin’ Cajuns a tough Sun Belt Conference-opening win.
Now, the Cajuns look to bring that success back to the Cajundome on Saturday in its first conference home game.
UL-Lafayette (7-5, 1-0) will look to build off its Tuesday 83-79 overtime win over Arkansas-Little Rock when it faces a very different Troy team at 7:15 p.m. The Cajuns women’s squad meets Troy in a 5 p.m. doubleheader opener in its first Sun Belt home contest.
The visiting Trojans (5-5, 0-1) lost at home to Texas State 57-46 on Tuesday. Troy has lost two of its past three, but has won two of its last three road games including a 65-64 win at Nicholls State on Dec. 21.
The home court didn’t help Trojans shooting Tuesday, as Troy missed its last 13 shots of the first half and went from a 15-6 lead to a 29-15 halftime deficit. Troy shot 27.1 percent from the field (13 of 48) and was outrebounded 41-25.
“They’re much more of a half-court team than they used to be back a couple of years ago, when they were up and down,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “It’s a totally different pace. This game will have a lot of similarities (to UALR) for sure; they’ll be good in the half-court both offensively and defensively, and our preparation should carry over.”
The Cajuns can identify with that 23-0 first-half streak that sunk Troy on Tuesday. UL-Lafayette held a 68-54 lead in the final 10 minutes and were down 72-70 with 90 seconds left, that 18-2 run including only one field goal, but made four free throws and forced a Trojans miss at the buzzer to set up overtime.
“We were glad to play the extra five minutes,” Marlin said.
UL-Lafayette never trailed in overtime and had a two-possession advantage for most of the extra period in keeping their Sun Belt-leading 82.0 scoring average intact.
“(UALR coach) Steve (Shields) called me on the bus when we were headed back,” Marlin said, “and he talked about how they had not played anyone who pushed the ball like we did. The pace was definitely in our favor.”
“That’s the goal,” said Shepherd, who had 15 first-half points and 20 overall in his first Sun Belt appearance since a season-ending knee injury against Western Kentucky last January.
“On the defensive end, when we get a stop or a break, we’re looking to push, especially when I’m in the game. The coaches tell me to get the ball and go, go until they stop me.”
Shepherd and Long were hard to stop Tuesday, with Long going for 23 points and 12 rebounds for his 40th career double-double. Only UC-Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams has more among the nation’s active players. Long also had a key inside assist leading to an easy basket in overtime and scored down low himself in the extra period.
“When you have a good big man like Shawn, you can always get something in the half court,” Shepherd said. “That’s our main focus when we’re in the half-court, to play inside out.”
Shepherd hit four 3-pointers in helping the Cajuns win for the fourth time in five games.
“We decided to start him and he did a good job,” Marlin said. “He hit a couple of 3s and ignited our offense. (UALR) hadn’t seen him since his injury came before we played last year, and he jumped on them a little and gave us a good boost.”
“It was exciting,” Shepherd said of his Sun Belt return. “I was happy to be back out there playing a game that counts. Watching last year was a big learning experience ... I tried to use it as an opportunity to watch other teams play and see things that I could do, seeing the mistakes they made and how I could help our team.”