STATESBORO, Ga. — Welcome to the second stop on Louisiana-Lafayette basketball’s discovery journey.
For the second time in a 10-day span, the Ragin’ Cajuns travel to a new city and play a new Sun Belt Conference opponent Thursday when they face Georgia Southern’s Eagles in a battle of league frontrunners.
The Cajuns (10-5, 4-0) are the Sun Belt’s only unbeaten team and are riding a streak of seven wins in their past eight outings. They’ve also won twice on the road in their first four conference games, including an impressive 80-64 win at league newcomer Appalachian State on Jan. 5.
Georgia Southern (10-3, 3-1), in a way, is an even newer foe for the Cajuns than ASU. UL- Lafayette last played GSU in 1992, a 107-82 victory in the Cajundome, and has never played a basketball game in Statesboro. All three previous meetings have been in Lafayette, unlike ASU with which the Cajuns played a home-and-home series a quarter-century ago.
Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. game at GSU’s Hanner Fieldhouse is also the first meeting between the schools in a major Sun Belt sport. Through a quirk in scheduling, the Cajuns and the Eagles didn’t meet in football last fall — which became significant when GSU ran the table against the rest of the league and took the Sun Belt title despite not facing bowl-bound UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State. The Eagles, in their final year of transition from the FCS, were not eligible for bowl participation.
The Eagles have won six of seven, with their only conference loss by one point at Texas-Arlington on Dec. 30. GSU also won back-to-back at Arkansas State and South Alabama last Thursday-Saturday and is 6-0 at home this year despite the league’s worst average home attendance (875 per game).
GSU also leads the league in scoring margin (13.2 compared to UL-Lafayette’s 11.7) and rebounding and is second in the league in scoring defense. But Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said the Eagles aren’t the tempo-based, slowdown team that some other Sun Belt squads are, even though their last home win was 40-36 over Texas State 10 days ago.
“They’re very good defensively,” Marlin said. “They had that game against Texas State, but they’re capable of playing it both ways. They won’t push it like we will because we want to play good defense and be aggressive and push the tempo.”
The Cajuns will play for the first time in a week, coming off last Thursday’s 84-80 home win over Georgia State. That was UL-Lafayette’s ninth straight game with 80 or more points, and the Cajuns go into Thursday ranked 10th nationally in scoring (82.6), a full nine points ahead of the next-highest Sun Belt team.
Much of that comes from four starters averaging 11.3 or more points and all shooting better than 51 percent from the field. In fact, the only starter not in twin digits is point guard Jay Wright (8.9), a native of Rincon, Georgia, who will be making a homecoming.
The Cajuns are at 49.6 percent as a team and are over 50 percent in the four Sun Belt wins, meaning that junior postman Shawn Long (15.4, 9.0) hasn’t had to carry such a big burden after averaging a double-double last season.
“Everybody balances out the scoring, so the weight won’t be on one guy,” Long said. “Luckily, I’ve got guys around me that enable me to impact the game in different ways besides scoring.”
GSU counters with senior point guard Jelani Hewitt (20.2), who ranks second in the Sun Belt in scoring, fifth in assists and leads the league in 3-pointers and free throw percentage. Senior forward and Charleston transfer Trent Wiedeman is next at 13.6 points and leads the league’s best rebounding club at 6.8 per game, and senior Eric Ferguson has averaged 8.6 per game since coming back from a first-semester suspension for marijuana, other drugs and firearm possession.
“Hewitt’s probably the best point guard in the league,” Marlin said. “Wiedeman is a really good player inside and Ferguson’s an NBA talent. We’ll have our hands full.”
Women go for streak
UL-Lafayette’s women’s squad guns for its second straight win Thursday in the first half of a Sun Belt doubleheader at 4 p.m. at Hanner Fieldhouse.
The Cajuns women (9-4, 1-3) got their first conference win last Thursday, rolling past Georgia State 68-52 and will be in a first-ever meeting with Georgia Southern (4-9, 1-3). The host Eagles snapped a streak of three straight losses and six losses in seven games with a 67-53 road win at South Alabama on Saturday.
Sophomore Jaylyn Gordon (14.3) had 20 points including six 3-pointers in the win over Georgia State, and the Cajuns have had a week off since forcing 24 turnovers in that win The Cajuns lead the Sun Belt in turnover margin (+6.2) while Georgia Southern ranks last in the league.
“They’re not scoring a lot,” UL-Lafayette associate head coach Sallie Guillory said of the Eagles, “so we’re going to get after them in the full court.”