SAN ANTONIO — The Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team was certain it would join the growing list of teams overcoming long odds in the NCAA tournament, which only made coming agonizingly short that much more painful.
The Ragin’ Cajuns could not overcome a late run by Creighton on Friday, falling 76-66 in the second round at the Alamodome.
No. 3 seed Creighton (27-7) advanced to the third round against No. 6 Baylor (25-11), which defeated No. 11 Nebraska 74-60 earlier in the day.
“I haven’t watched a lot of (Baylor) to this point because I was scared to death of this first game,” Creighton coach Bob McDermott said.
The Bluejays had every right to be fearful of the No. 14 seed Ragin’ Cajuns.
UL-Lafayette junior Elfrid Payton had a team-high 24 points, eight rebounds and three assists while defending Creighton’s all-time leading scorer, Doug McDermott.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Doug McDermott said. “To do what he did on the offensive end while trying (to defend him) ... I was trying to make it as hard as possible all night to get him tired or get him in foul trouble. He’s got a motor like none other.”
Payton’s reverse layup with 12:15 left gave the Ragin’ Cajuns a 50-46 lead, matching their largest advantage.
“I felt like going into the game, we were very capable of beating these guys,” sophomore Shawn Long said. “We fought hard throughout the game, and they just hit some nice shots down the stretch and came out with the victory.”
The Bluejays responded with an 8-0 run coming out of a timeout the elder McDermott called following Payton’s layup.
Senior forward Ethan Wragge capped the run with back-to-back 3-pointers, making the second with 10:25 remaining to give Creighton a 54-50 lead it did not relinquish.
The Bluejays were 5-for-10 on 3-pointers in the second half after going 4-for-13 in the opening 20 minutes.
“It made a big difference,” Long said. “It stretched the game out more. (After) missing in the first half, the second half is when it really counts.”
Still, UL-Lafayette was within 68-64 following a pair of free throws by Payton with 2:27 remaining.
“We felt like even at the end with a couple minutes to go, we were still right there at the three-minute mark,” Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said.
That’s when McDermott came through again: He hit a 3-pointer and then drove the lane for a contested layup to give the Bluejays a 73-64 lead with 1:11 to go.
The 6-foot-8 forward finished with a game-high 30 points, but the 6-foot-3 Payton hounded and harassed him throughout.
“I think I did a good job keeping him uncomfortable,” Payton said. “To his credit, he made some plays down the stretch — a big 3 and a tough 2 he made. It kind of affected me (offensively) having to run around so much on the other end, but no excuses.”
McDermott was limited to 13 points while taking just eight shots in the second half, but those shots proved critical.
It was especially big with UL-Lafayette struggling from long range, finishing 4-for-16 on 3-pointers.
“I don’t remember the last time we made four 3-point field goals,” Marlin said. “We were hoping that we’d make more. Xavian (Rimmer) and Bryant (Mbamalu) shoot a combined 3 for 17. We need to make some shots on our end at the top of the key.”
Long, who battled foul trouble early in the second half, was the only other player in double figures at 15 points. Mbamalu finished with five points, and Rimmer had three.
Despite the Ragin’ Cajuns’ struggles, the younger McDermott let out a huge sigh once the game was over.
“We got away with one today,” he said. “We didn’t play our best to start the game, but we really showed our leadership and our (experience). We have a veteran group, and I think we really showed that toward the end down the stretch.”