LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin didn’t like what he saw in Saturday’s first 30 seconds.
He liked the next 30 minutes a lot more.
The Ragin’ Cajuns men’s basketball team locked down defensively on Texas-Arlington’s high-octane attack Saturday for a 90-70 Sun Belt Conference win over the first-year league member Mavericks.
UTA (6-10, 1-3) entered the game as the conference’s second-highest scoring team, only four points behind the league-leading Cajuns. But after a shaky start on UTA’s early possessions, the Cajuns relied on defense to build a 27-point lead midway through the second half.
“The first thing you have to do against a team like that is stop the basketball, and then run and guard the hole because they (UTA) can really get to the basket in a hurry,” Marlin said. “I thought we did that. ... Our defense was outstanding.”
The Cajuns (10-5, 1-1) forced 11 turnovers in the first half and held UTA to 36.4 percent shooting while avoiding fouls and not allowing the Mavericks to shoot a free throw until the 18:06 mark of the second half.
By that time, UL-Lafayette had a 20-point lead, and the visitors never got closer than 15 the rest of the way.
“We got off to a slow start and we couldn’t get to the free-throw line,” UTA coach Scott Cross said. “(The Cajuns) were playing really aggressive, and we got a little tentative.”
UTA didn’t look tentative at tipoff, scoring twice in transition and getting an easy open jumper in the first 90 seconds for a 6-2 lead. Marlin, in fact, called a time out after only one possession, with 19:26 still showing in the first half.
“We’d worked on transition defense all week,” Marlin said. “We did a much better job after the time out.”
“He just said to pick it up on defense,” sophomore center Shawn Long said of the time out. “We had to protect the rim, and start carrying over what we’d worked on in practice all week.”
Long, who didn’t start but played the final 14 minutes of the first half, took that to heart. He finished the game with a career-high seven blocked shots to go with 22 points and nine rebounds.
“He played like a man,” Cross said.
The Cajuns went on a 19-2 run after those first 90 seconds. Long’s three-point play gave UL-Lafayette a 21-8 lead at the 13:26 mark, and that lead never got below double-digits again.
It helped that the hosts had their best 3-point-shooting start of the season.
The Cajuns hit five of their first six outside the arc, with four players getting involved. Xavian Rimmer’s 3-pointer at the 6:57 mark wrapped up that run and gave the Cajuns a 33-19 lead.
Elfrid Payton didn’t have any of those treys, but the UL-Lafayette point guard was responsible for many of them, according to the Mavs’ coach.
“He’s so dynamic, he’s hard to keep in front of you. And he’s a great finisher,” Cross said. “The bigger thing today was that he lined up their 3-point shooters. ... He draws the defense to him and sets them up.”
Payton had 12 points and seven assists.
Kasey Shepherd had 3-pointes among his 17 points. And Bryant Mbamalu, making his first start after missing the season’s first 12 games with a foot injury, also had three 3-pointers on the way to 12 points.
UTA guard Lonnie McClanahan scored 27 points, including 23 in the second half. Brandon Edwards added 10 points.
UTA was without the services of the Sun Belt’s top 3-point threat and leading scorer, Reger Dowell (22.0), who was out with a thigh injury.
“When they didn’t have him, from our defensive standpoint, we knew we had to protect the paint,” said Rimmer, who also had 12 points.