Over the past two seasons, during which the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA tournament and the quarterfinals of the CIT, there were very few teams that coach Bob Marlin said his squad failed to match up with.
South Alabama was one of those few, and don’t think the Ragin’ Cajuns don’t remember getting shot out of their Cajundome home when those teams met last January.
“We lost three games in the Cajundome last year, and one of them was to them,” Marlin said of an 89-82 loss in which UL-Lafayette led by 15 at one point. “Our coaches felt like those two games cost us a conference championship.”
The Cajuns (7-8, 3-3 Sun Belt) will be out for a bit of revenge at 7:15 p.m. Thursday, when they put an eight-game home win streak on the line against the Jaguars (7-10, 2-4). The game will be the second half of a conference doubleheader, with the Cajuns women facing South Alabama at 5 p.m.
Despite finishing last season 12-21 and with a losing record in Sun Belt play, the Jaguars put on a second-half shooting exhibition against a UL-Lafayette team that was sitting atop the Sun Belt standings. Twelve days later, USA did it again with a comeback 89-85 victory in Mobile, Alabama.
“Last year we didn’t match up well with them,” Marlin said. “It’ll be an interesting game on Thursday. We look forward to playing those guys.”
The Cajuns are catching South Alabama with the Jaguars coming off their biggest win of the year, 88-85 in overtime Saturday over previously league-unbeaten UT Arlington. Newcomer Shaq Calhoun drilled a 3-pointer late in overtime for the winning margin, while returnees Georgi Boyanov and Ken Williams scored 24 and 23 points.
“Most of their guys are the same,” Marlin said. “Williams is a (preseason) all-conference player and can really shoot the ball, a very explosive shooter.”
The Jaguars are solid on the perimeter, but are still searching for answers inside. Returning center Abdul Lewis transferred after last season, and the Jaguars are ninth in the Sun Belt in rebounding and have been out-rebounded by nearly double-figure margins in their past two league games.
That spells trouble, considering that UL-Lafayette center Shawn Long was an interior terror in the Cajuns’ two Sun Belt road wins last week. The 6-foot-11 senior from Morgan City had 23 points and 17 rebounds Thursday in a 74-65 win at Georgia Southern. He topped that with 23 points and 18 rebounds in a stunningly easy 87-54 win over defending league champion Georgia State.
Long, who hit 19-of-25 shots in the two games, won five national and regional player of the week honors for those performances. He enters Thursday’s game ranked third nationally in rebounding (13.0) and second in the Sun Belt in scoring (19.2).
Despite last year’s two losses to the Jaguars, Long was a dominant force. He had 22 points and a career-high 22 rebounds in 30 minutes in the home loss, the first 20-20 game for a Cajuns player since 1981, and had 26 points and 12 rebounds in Mobile.
He was also a big part of the Cajuns’ inside domination Saturday, when UL-Lafayette didn’t allow Georgia State an offensive rebound until less than 10 minutes remained. By that time, the Cajuns had a 61-44 lead on the way to handing the Panthers their worst loss in five seasons and their first home loss in 16 games. Georgia State had lost twice at home in the past three seasons.
Home is somewhere the Cajuns haven’t seen much. UL-Lafayette has played 10 of its 15 games on opposing courts this season, but Thursday’s game opens a streak of four straight Cajundome outings and seven home games in the next eight Sun Belt outings.
The home streak comes at a good time. With Arkansas State’s upset win over Arkansas-Little Rock on Monday, taking down the last of the league’s unbeaten teams, the Cajuns are two games out of first place in the Sun Belt and have all the teams ahead of them still to come to Lafayette this season.
“We need to protect our home court now, and continue to play well,” Marlin said. “It doesn’t matter where we are. This is an opportunity for us to make up some ground.”