LAFAYETTE — The Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team had one last chance for some magic at the tail end of its dramatic comeback attempt Saturday against Little Rock, but it stumbled before it could say abracadabra.
Trailing by three with 15 seconds to go, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ final possession consisted of a near turnover, a mad scramble for a loose ball and a double-clutch desperation heave from about 30 feet.
The 68-64 loss to Little Rock (22-3, 12-2) in the Cajundome snapped a nine-game winning streak, dashed the dream of an undefeated record at home and kept the Cajuns (14-9, 10-4) securely in second place in the conference race.
Coach Bob Marlin said he wanted the ball in sophomore guard Johnathan Stove’s hands on that last possession. Stove had scored 18 points, including a perfect 10-for-10 effort at the free-throw line.
“We wanted Stove to penetrate,” Marlin said. “We felt like he could get to the basket and draw a foul.”
But Stove opted to try a cross-over move on Trojans guard Roger Woods, and Woods was waiting for it. Stove said the result of the play will haunt him for a while.
“I crossed over, and he was sitting there waiting on it,” Stove said. “He got a hand on it and it bounced off my knee.”
There was a scrum on the floor for the loose ball, which point guard Jay Wright recovered. He flipped it to teammate Hayward Register, who launched a prayer that fell well short of the basket.
There was less than a second remaining when the Cajuns fouled Little Rock’s Josh Hagins, and they were unable to get a shot off after Hagins missed the second of his two free throws.
They couldn’t finish it off, but for a while it looked like the Cajuns were about to stun the Trojans with a miraculous comeback.
Little Rock was leading by 13 with less than five minutes remaining, having already fought off a couple of Cajuns rallies. But senior guard Steve Wronkoski jump-started the Cajuns offense when he made 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions.
The Cajuns had only made one 3-pointer before Wronkoski’s 3s swiftly cut the Trojans’ lead to single digits. Marlin said that when he put Wronkoski into the game, he told him to make a shot.
Wronkoski obliged, hitting nothing but net from the right wing. After Hagins answered with a layup, Wronkoski found himself gravitating toward the exact spot where he just hit a shot.
“I felt good shooting the ball in the second half … and I just wanted to give us a little spark to get going,” Wronkoski said. “Try to open the lid and get some more buckets over on that goal.”
It worked. Starting with Wronkoski’s first 3-pointer, the Cajuns went on a 16-4 run to cut the Trojans’ lead to one.
Stove hit a pair of free throws to make it a one-possession game with 33 seconds remaining. Marlin substituted in Elijah McGuire during the free throws, and McGuire responded by stealing the ensuing inbound pass and laying it up to cut the lead to one.
But that was where the Cajuns’ rally ended. After the game, the players were disappointed with the result but confident that one game wasn’t going to kill the good mojo they’ve been building for the past five weeks.
“You’ve just got to keep playing,” Stove said. “It’s one game down; we’ve got to move on to the next. We’re still playing for a lot. They could lose two more, three more and we could keep winning and we still could be first place. You’ve got to keep playing. You can’t let one game affect the rest of the season.”
Little Rock used a 12-2 run late in the first half to sprint to a double-digit lead, holding a 14-point advantage on the Cajuns with less than a minute to play before halftime.
All of those points came on layups or at the free-throw line as the Trojans aggressively attacked the interior of the Cajuns defense. Little Rock outscored the Cajuns 24-16 in the paint in the first half.
The Cajuns spent most of the rest of the game trying to chip away, but every time they seemed to make some progress, Little Rock had an answer.
With the win, Little Rock swept the season series. Still, the common refrain after the game from the Cajuns was that they hoped they’d get another chance to tack a “1” in the win column against Little Rock in the conference tournament.
“Hopefully,” Marlin said, “we’ll get another chance to play these guys down the stretch.”