LAFAYETTE — They’re likely one free throw or one more Saturday play away from entering the final three games of the Sun Belt Conference season with a real shot at the regular-season title.
Now, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team has to regroup after having its six-game win streak snapped in an 80-77 loss at league-leading Georgia State. But Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said Monday his team will be the one to fear at the upcoming conference tournament.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the year,” Marlin said as the Cajuns have a rare lull in the schedule this week. “Not a lot of teams in the country are going unbeaten in February and we had a chance to do that. We’re doing a lot of good things right now against a difficult schedule.”
UL-Lafayette will have more than a week to put that streak-breaking loss out of mind, since the Cajuns (18-10, 9-6 Sun Belt) don’t play again until a Sunday afternoon regionally televised home game against South Alabama. UL-Lafayette has only three regular-season games remaining, including road outings at Western Kentucky and Arkansas State next week, before the March 13-16 Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans.
Because of that, Marlin has the Cajuns taking things easy this week. The squad will have “academic practices” in study hall until returning to individual workouts Wednesday and Thursday, and won’t start preparing for the South Alabama game until Friday.
“We don’t really like having this long a break right now, but we’re going to use it for an advantage,” he said. “It’s a long season, and we still have (20) days until Selection Sunday. It’s about rest right now, but I feel good about where we are.”
The Cajuns stand fourth in the league standings, one-half game behind Arkansas State (9-5) and one and one-half games behind Western Kentucky (10-4) going into those two places next week. With Saturday’s last-second win over UL-Lafayette, Georgia State has all but clinched the regular-season title and the top seed for the league tournament.
In this year’s new tournament format, the top two seeds get a bye into the semifinals, and the top four seeds get a bye into the quarterfinals. The top eight teams make the tournament, and the Nos. 5-8 teams have to win four games to take the tournament title.
Marlin said that’s why he’s wary of Sunday’s game against South Alabama, since the Jaguars are 3-11 in league play and 10th in the standings. South Alabama, which was picked second in the league’s preseason poll and got two first-place votes, is one game out of the critical eighth spot with four games remaining.
The Jaguars also took an 81-73 win over UL-Lafayette in Mobile back on Jan. 16, which until last week was South Alabama’s only conference win. Since then, though, the Jaguars beat Western Kentucky 69-62 on the road and topped Troy 86-78 at home on Saturday in their last outing.
“They’re a hard match-up for us,” Marlin said. “They started a different lineup the other night, and they played really well against Troy. We’re going to have our hands full since they’re fighting to get into the tournament. And they have a real opportunity to make it so I expect a big game out of them.”
The Cajuns came close to handing Georgia State (20-7) its first home loss Saturday night, but Georgia State’s Manny Atkins hit a 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left to break a 77-77 tie. UL-Lafayette led by as many as 12 points in the second half despite its three top scorers in foul trouble, and Shawn Long and Elfrid Payton both missing significant time. But the Cajuns trailed by a dozen in the second half and by nine with 1:39 left.
Payton scored the final six points for the Cajuns, including a tying free throw with 0:30 left, but missed the second before the Georgia State game-winner.
“We had 15 straight negative defensive possessions in the second half,” Marlin said. “We could’ve done like most teams when we got behind double-digits and ended up losing by 20 or 25 on the road, but we kept chipping away, and we had a furious comeback and a chance to win the game. Our guys responded well ... we continued to fight and claw, and that’s why I look forward to this week.”