LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team finished last week’s two-game road swing in Texas 0-2, with the two losses coming by a combined five points.
That slim margin of defeat easily could have swung the opposite way in both games if the Cajuns had connected on their free throws.
They made only 58.6 percent (17-of-29) of their attempts from the charity stripe in a one-point overtime loss against UT-Arlington, including an 11-for-21 mark in regulation.
They followed that up with a 56.7 percent (17-of-30) effort in a four-point loss to Texas State.
As a team, the Cajuns entered last week shooting 69.7 percent from the free-throw line. If they had at least met their season average in both contests, they likely would have swept the trip to Texas and would find themselves in much better position going into the last four games of the regular season.
It was an odd failure for a team that used the free-throw line to such great effect in the nine games before the Texas trip.
Starting with the Georgia State game and ending with a close loss to Sun Belt Conference front-runner Little Rock, the Cajuns connected on nearly 73 percent of their free-throw attempts (192-for-264).
With the exception of an 87-76 win at Appalachian State when they shot only 20-of-38, the Cajuns nailed 72 percent or better from the free-throw line in each of those games. They went 8-1 during that stretch.
Some of the Cajuns best free-throw shooters had off weeks. Kasey Shepherd had made 25 straight free throws before missing two in a row against Texas State on a night when he shot 1-for-9 from the field and 0-for-4 from 3-point range.
Johnathan Stove, who recently made all 10 of his free-throw attempts against Little Rock and was shooting 80 percent from the line for the season entering the week, made only 7-of-13 (53.8 percent) from the free-throw line during the Texas trip, including an airball.
Shawn Long, who also had a 10-for-10 night at the line this season, made just 10 of his 23 attempts.
“He was 7-of-16 against Arlington,” coach Bob Marlin said. “He could’ve had an Anthony Davis game, he could’ve had 35 (points) and 22 (rebounds) very easy.
“We practiced at San Marcos (Texas State) on Friday, and at the end of practice I put Shawn at the free-throw line, he shoots 16, he makes 14 in a row, misses one, makes the last one — 15-of-16 — and he still missed a couple in the game against Texas State.”
With the Cajuns still struggling to consistently find their stroke from the perimeter — they’re shooting 31.1 percent from beyond the 3-point line this season — they have been consistently aggressive going after the basket in hopes of drawing a foul and scoring points at the line.
That strategy halfway worked last week. Now the Cajuns just have to get back to knocking the free throws down when they get them.
“The free-throw scoring is something we need to rely on,” Marlin said.
Suddenly looking up
While the Cajuns were getting swept in Texas, their primary competition for the important top-two seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament was doing the opposite.
UL-Monroe, who entered the week with a terrible record away from home, beat both Texas State and UT-Arlington to vault past the Cajuns and move into second place in the conference. The Warhawks also hold a tiebreaker against the Cajuns because they beat Little Rock, who has the best record in the conference.
“We needed Arlington to win that game, we needed Monroe to lose a couple, because we’re going to wind up losing a tiebreaker with Monroe, so they’re going to be hard to catch for second,” Marlin said.
ULM has ripped off five straight wins since losing to the Cajuns in overtime on Feb. 2. In order for the Cajuns to catch the Warhawks in the standings, they’ll need ULM to lose at least two of its remaining four games. In that scenario, the Cajuns would also need to win out.
Put simply, the Cajuns need to win two more games than the Warhawks do in the final two weeks of the season.
“We went five weeks without losing a basketball game, then we lose three in a week,” Marlin said. “Things change rather quickly from a standings situation. But our goals are still the same, and we look forward to playing better, making some shots and having success at Troy on Thursday.”