LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team has its first three-game winning streak since it started 4-0 in conference play, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
With three games left in the regular season, the Cajuns seized control of a top-four seed in the Sun Belt Conference by cruising past UT-Arlington 81-70 on the road. The Cajuns’ three remaining games come against Georgia Southern, which is tied for first place in the Sun Belt Conference with UL-Monroe and Georgia State at 12-4, Arkansas-Little Rock (7-10 SBC) and Arkansas State (5-11).
The Cajuns’s three-game winning streak has been helped by improved play from the team as a whole on the defensive end, by the guards on the offensive end, and by a little luck as well.
First, look at the Cajuns defensive effort in the past two games. At his Monday press conference, before playing either UT-Arlington or Texas State, coach Bob Marlin lamented the poor defensive play of his club.
The Cajuns somehow were just coming off an overtime win on the road in Troy, where they didn’t trail until the game went to an extra period despite allowing the Trojans to shoot better than 60 percent in the first half, the second half and the extra period (see: luck, above).
As Marlin said in his Monday press conference, the Cajuns did too many things well to be struggling as bad as they were. The key was getting defensive stops, and the Cajuns finally started getting some of those in the past two games.
They limited the Bobcats to just 42 points, far and away the best defensive effort of the year for the Cajuns, whose previous low for an opponent was 52 points against Oral Roberts in November. Then UL-Lafayette held the Mavericks to 17 percent shooting in the first half while the Cajuns raced out to a big lead.
But when the Cajuns have played their best, they haven’t needed to turn the screws defensively, and they’re playing their best when they complement Shawn Long’s inside game with solid offensive guard play.
They’ve gotten that lately, especially from point guard Jay Wright, who has found his touch after going through a five-game shooting slump in which he did not crack double figures.
Wright, a 38 percent shooter on the year, has made 16 of 30 shots in his past three games, scoring at least 13 points in all three. He’s also handed out 16 assists in those three wins.
The Cajuns have also gotten big offensive contributions from at least one other guard in all three of their past three wins. Steven Wronkowski chipped in a season-high 13 against Troy. After going five games without turning in double figures, Kasey Shepherd has done it in each of the past two games, and Hayward Register shook off a couple bad shooting nights to propel the Cajuns offense with five first-half 3-pointers against UT-Arlington.
Long goes in second half
After picking up just three points and three rebounds in nine minutes of first-half action against the Mavericks, Long returned to his usual beastly ways in the second half.
Long’s second-half numbers would have been impressive if they came in a full game. He scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the final 20 minutes, and six of those rebounds came off the offensive glass.
Marlin said in a postgame radio interview that he challenged Long to have a dominant second half, and it was clear that Marlin facilitated that by feeding Long the ball.
The Cajuns attempted 35 field goals in the second half, 14 of them by Long.
With the 21-point, 15-rebound effort, Long passed Byron Starks to move into 10th place on the Cajuns all-time scoring list. He is now two points behind Ed McCauley for ninth place.
Long is 43 rebounds shy of becoming the third Cajun to pull down 1,000 in a career, and he is two blocks short of becoming the second Cajun to block 200 shots in a career.
The Cajuns turned to sharpshooting shooting guard Register early and often in the first half of their win against UT-Arlington, and Register responded.
The sophomore guard made the Cajuns first three field-goal attempts — all 3-pointers — to push the Cajuns out to a nine-point lead in the first five minutes. That lead never got smaller than six points.
Register finished the first half with 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting, with all of his attempts coming from beyond the arc. He took three more 3-point attempts in the second half, but came up empty on all of them.
Odds and ends
The Cajuns won’t play on a Thursday for the first time since New Years Day, and the open date comes just before the Cajuns play Georgia Southern. … Long’s double-double against UT-Arlington gave him 49 for his career, more than any other active player. … Brian Williams, who has started in 22 games for the Cajuns this season, did not see a single minute against UT-Arlington.