LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette dominated the area around the basket at the Cajundome on Thursday night, and that helped the Cajuns win their sixth straight Sun Belt Conference victory.
The 46 points in the paint off turnovers and transition enabled UL-Lafayette to defeat Troy 78-63 as the Cajuns set up Saturday night’s matchup against league-leading Georgia State in Atlanta on Saturday night.
Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said one of his team’s goals was to attack the basket when the opportunity arose.
“I thought we did a good job penetrating, which is something that we always try to do,” said Marlin, whose team improved to 18-9 and 9-5 in the SBC.
The easy baskets around the rim helped UL-Lafayette to shoot 69.4 percent from the field in the second half and 54.4 percent for the game.
UL-Lafayette had several players who scored in double figures during the second half after hitting single digits during the first 20 minutes.
Forward Shawn Long, who played only five minutes in the first half because of a pair of quick fouls, scored 13 in the second half and finished with 15 points.
Senior guard Bryant Mbamalu scored 19 of his 21 in the second half, while guard Elfrid Payton finished with 15.
Troy basketball coach Phil Cunningham said his team (9-16, 4-9) was affected especially by the Cajuns’ speed and athleticism.
With Long on the bench because of fouls, Cunningham said he noticed a difference in the Cajuns’ strategy on the floor.
“(UL-Lafayette) are very quick and they drive the ball to the basket so much,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham felt the difference for his team came in the first half. Troy took a quick 8-2 lead, but then fell behind as the Cajuns took a three-point lead (21-18) with 5:13 left.
“Give (UL-Lafayette) credit. They went small. They have Eldridge Moore and they turned it up defensively and we had trouble getting the ball from point A to point B. “Then we make some mistakes down the stretch. I thought the difference in the game, though, came during the first half.”
Cunningham said the Cajuns, who have defeated his team twice this season, has changed its personality a bit from the start of the season.
“When you win six in a row there’s a reason and I think Lafayette is really starting to guard people. They started out outscoring people, but (Thursday night) they really put it on us defensively,” Cunningham said.
The Cajuns held a slight rebounding edge over Troy (23-19) and shot 33.7 percent from three-point range.
The Cajuns grabbed a 31-22 halftime lead following a slow offensive start. During the first four minutes and nine seconds, UL-Lafayette shot 20 percent from the field, while the Trojans sank 66.7 percent of their attempts.
“I thought we were stagnant a little bit to start the game. We couldn’t move the ball that well,” said Marlin.
A couple of Payton layups pushed the Cajuns into the lead, however (10-9) with 12:54 before intermission, but Troy began a 9-4 run over the next five minutes.
The assault started with a dunk by center Josh Warren, while forward Kevin Thomas made a field goal and two free throws to help Troy into the lead.
Freshman Hayward Register moved off the bench and sank a trio of 3-point attempts over a three minute span to assist the Cajuns’ 27-14 lead with 2:54 left.
“Hayward came in for us and hit some timely shots and we got some shots from some other guys in the first half,” said Marlin.
Mbamalu said Register, a freshman, whose nine points came off three-pointers, gives the Cajuns some good offensive moments.
“(Register) comes in and really knows his role. He’s able to shoot the ball,” Mbamalu said.
Mbamalu, who has a career 947 points, said his job is to make points around the basket.
“Being able to go rebound the ball and score points, that’s what I do,” said Mbamalu, who had a career-high four steals.
In the second half Mbamalu’s 3-pointer with 14:00 remaining gave the Cajuns a 15-point advantage (49-34).
Three minutes later two consecutive baskets from Mbamalu — the last at 11:53 — gave UL-Lafayette a 57-43 lead.
Troy was never able to get the game down to single digits after that. The Trojans didn’t make a field goal for the last four minutes of the game.