Familiarity will be on the side of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team in its Friday night quarterfinal in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, regardless of what happens in Thursday’s opening around.
The fourth-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns drew a first-round bye and will face the winner of Thursday’s Georgia Southern-South Alabama game at 5 p.m. Friday at UNO’s Lakefront Arena.
The Cajuns (16-13, 12-8) faced Georgia Southern in Saturday’s regular-season finale, winning 87-78 at the Cajundome. They ended their road season one Saturday earlier, falling at South Alabama 83-70.
“It certainly will be a familiar scouting report,” said UL-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin, whose Cajuns are the only Sun Belt team to win at least one tournament game in each of the past three seasons. “We’ve had success in the tournament, and the guys that have been here are familiar with what the tournament’s about. They know what’s at stake. ... If you don’t play well, you go home.”
The Cajuns played well in Saturday’s second half against Georgia Southern to lock up one of the top four seeds and draw a first-round bye for the third time in three years. After falling behind by seven points midway through the first half and trailing for much of that period, UL-Lafayette took control and ended up with a 49-19 rebound advantage.
The Cajuns matched Georgia Southern’s 3-point attack, with both teams hitting eight, and made 25-of-31 free throws to overcome the one-two punch of Eagles guards Mike Hughes and Tookie Brown, who combined 48 points.
“Their four-guard lineup is successful for them,” Marlin said of Georgia Southern. “They lead the conference in 3-pointers per game, and they’d made 16 and 16 in their last two games. We held them to eight and to nine in two games, which we think is pretty good.”
The Cajuns also got a career game from senior Devonta Walker, who entered Saturday’s game averaging 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds. Getting his fourth start of the year, and forced into longer action when Shawn Long was saddled with early foul trouble, Walker had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the first half.
He finished with 16 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. In the first half, he had as many rebounds (10) as Georgia Southern’s entire team.
“Our playing time is based on production, and Devonta’s going to get that opportunity now,” Marlin said. “He went into the season as a starter, but down the stretch in conference when we won nine in a row, Shawn and Bryce (Washington) were playing well, and it was hard for him get on the floor for an extended period when he’s the third guy in that rotation.”
Long had no points and two rebound in Saturday’s first half as he was triangle-guarded by the Eagles’ front line. He finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. He played a key role on the defensive end when the Cajuns went to a different-look 1-3-1 defense that disrupted Georgia Southern’s attack that helped turn a 66-65 deficit with 7:02 left into a 81-71 lead by the 2:16 mark.
“I feel like all our strengths were in play the other night,” Marlin said. “Shawn being triple-teamed, he didn’t get the shots and the points, but he was still effective and creates more options that we have to take advantage of in spacing and ball movement. Our defense wasn’t as good as it was in that streak, but we shot the 3 and made our free throws.”
The Cajuns won three tournament games by a total of eight points in winning the 2014 title, but to match that success they’ll have to stop a trend. Five of UL-Lafayette’s Sun Belt games have been decided by four or fewer points, and the Cajuns have lost all five.
Marlin said his team’s depth will be an advantage, and he is giving his players as much rest as possible this week. The squad took off Sunday and had only a voluntary shoot-around Monday on their weekly academic day.
If UL-Lafayette wins Friday, the Cajuns will face top-seeded Little Rock in Saturday’s 1 p.m. semifinals after Little Rock and UL-Monroe finished 1-2 in the standings and drew the double-bye. The finals are at noon Sunday.
“If we’d flipped some of those close games, that would have helped our final standing,” Marlin said. “It’s important when you have to play three days in a row that you have fresh legs and guys that can step up. We want to be fresh in mind and body in our couple of practices this week and go into the tournament with some momentum.”