LAFAYETTE — The rivalry between Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia State lived up to its hype.
The two teams that battled for the Sun Belt Conference championship a year ago traded long-range daggers and huge momentum swings in front of a raucous crowd at the Cajundome. After taking an early haymaker on the chin, the Cajuns (10-5, 4-0) landed enough punches to emerge from the floor with their seventh win in eight tries, beating the Panthers (9-6, 2-2) 84-80.
“You guys enjoy that one?” joked coach Bob Marlin to open his post-game press conference.
Marlin enjoyed the result, but it was nerve-wracking in the final moments. His players didn’t look much affected from their nerves, though.
The Cajuns sank 15 of their final 16 shots from the free throw line, including nine straight to close the game. Many of those free throws extended the Cajuns lead to two or three points.
“We didn’t make free throws, we wouldn’t win tonight,” said senior forward Brian Williams.
But even with the Cajuns performing in the clutch, the Panthers still had a shot. Guard R.J. Hunter was fouled before he could get a game-tying attempt up with a couple seconds remaining and went to the line with the Cajuns leading by three.
Hunter nailed the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, setting up a potential game-tying shot by Kevin Ware. But Ware’s shot was off the mark and Shawn Long snagged the rebound to preserve the win.
But it certainly didn’t look like the Cajuns would be in position to seal the game with those late free throws during the opening minutes of the game.
The Panthers jumped out to a huge lead in the early going thanks to a combination of some torrid shooting and some turnover prone basketball from the Cajuns.
The Cajuns turned the ball over seven times in the game’s first 12 minutes, with three of the turnovers coming off the hand of point guard Jay Wright.
“We turned it over a couple times then we got stagnant against their zone,” Marlin said. “
The Panthers scored seven points off those turnovers in the opening minutes, and the way they were shooting, the Cajuns couldn’t afford to keep helping them out.
Reigning SBC Player of the Year R.J. Hunter was nearly unstoppable early. The junior guard hit five of his first seven shots — three of which came from 3-point range — and had 14 points by the time the game was 10 minutes old. Hunter wasn’t the only one shooting well, though. During one stretch, the Panthers dropped 14 of 19 shots from the floor.
Things looked bad for the Cajuns, trailing by 17 points with a little less than six minutes remaining in the first half. But once the Cajuns woke up, the Panthers lead evaporated quickly.
The Cajuns closed the first half on a 25-10 run thanks to a couple of factors.
The Panthers were called for 14 fouls in the first half, three less than their season average per game, and the Cajuns made them pay by sinking 14 of 19 free throws.
They also made their final shot six attempts of the half, to enter the locker room trailing by just one point, then they took the lead by making their first two shots of the second half.
The Panthers weren’t about to go away, though. They surged back in front of the Cajuns by scoring four straight fast-break layups, three of which were dropped through the basket by guard Ryan Harrow, who torched the Cajuns for 37 points in last year’s SBC tournament championship game.
Harrow finished with 25 points this time, two points behind Hunter’s game-high 27. But every time it looked like the Panthers were re-establishing control of the game, the Cajuns took it right back from them.
The lead changed five times in the second half, with the Cajuns securing it for good with 52 seconds remaining on a Devonta Walker free throw.
All five Cajuns starters finished in double figures, with Williams scoring a team-high 20 points.