LAFAYETTE — The Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team will its their three-game winning streak on the line Saturday against the Sun Belt Conference’s top team in Georgia Southern.
The Eagles (20-6, 13-4) are tied with ULM at the top of the conference standings. The Cajuns (16-12, 10-7) are not only trying to hang on to the No. 4 seed in the conference but keep positive momentum going into the conference tournament.
“We need to continue to win, and to play a team that’s above us in the standings, being on our home floor against a team that beat us over there earlier in the year, it will be important,” coach Bob Marlin said.
Earlier this season, the Cajuns were riding a four-game winning streak when they went to Statesboro, Georgia, to play the Eagles in their home arena. Despite the Cajuns’ hot play coming into the matchup, Georgia Southern took it to them early, building up a 13-point lead with 1:43 to go in the first half.
The Cajuns fought back in the final minutes, cutting an 11-point deficit to three with two minutes to play, but Georgia Southern knocked down its free throws and held the Cajuns to just one field goal in the last 1:57 to preserve a 78-70 win.
The loss — combined with navigating a grueling portion of the schedule — sent the Cajuns into a brief tailspin that they’ve just started to come out of.
After the game, the Eagles celebrated on the scorer’s table, a fact the Cajuns have not forgetten.
The Eagles are led by a trio of fifth-year seniors in point guard Jelani Hewitt and forwards Eric Ferguson and Trent Weideman. Hewitt is one of the most prolific scorers in the Sun Belt, checking in at 18.3 points per game. He scored 17 against the Cajuns when the teams first met despite an off shooting night.
“That’s a big deal in college basketball,” Cajuns director of operations Michael Murphy said.
“Hewitt is a bit of a defensive nightmare for coaches – he can shoot the 3, he can beat you off the bounce, he’s very good at getting to the free throw line,” Murphy continued. “We’ve got to do a pretty good job of containing him. We did that last time in Statesboro, but he’s going to come at us, and we know that.”
But Georgia Southern’s defense has been the key to their success this season. The Eagles are holding opponents to just 39.1 percent from the field and 60.8 points per game, and their scoring margin of +10.1 points per game leads the conference.
The Cajuns have struggled for the majority of the season on the defensive end, but they’ve shown signs of turning that around in their last two games, holding both Texas State and UT-Arlington under 38 percent from the floor.
But just as key to the Cajuns’ resurgence has been point guard Jay Wright, who after a string of rough games has averaged 14.7 points, 5.3 assists and six rebounds per game while leading the defensive charge during the Cajuns’ win streak.
“These last three games, literally, he took the team and put it on his back on both ends of the floor,” Murphy said. “He’s made it very difficult for other team’s lead guards not only to get the ball up the floor, but to make that entry pass where they want to start their offense from.”
With tournament time right around the corner, Marlin has been drilling into his team’s head that this might not be the last time the Cajuns square off against Georgia Southern.
“At this time of year, you keep reminding your players that, ‘Hey, we could play this group again, so go shake their hand after the game and make sure you do the right things — and not jump on the scorer’s table like they did when they beat us at Statesboro,’ ” Marlin said.