LAFAYETTE — After shaking off a slow start, the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team was not able to find a strong finish in a 72-69 loss to Georgia State at the Cajundome.
The Panthers (16-12, 9-10 Sun Belt Conference) surged back in front of the Cajuns (16-12, 11-8) with a late rally, and the Cajuns weren’t able to find the shots when they counted in the closing minutes, losing their fifth game in their last six outings.
With one game remaining in the regular season — Saturday’s senior day matchup against Georgia Southern, which all of a sudden is one game behind the Cajuns for a top-four seed in the conference tournament — coach Bob Marlin knows his team needs to right the ship in a hurry.
“We’ve just got one left, we’ve got to turn it around quick,” Marlin said.
The Cajuns looked lifeless, so did the crowd, and Jay Wright — the guy whose bone was sticking through the index finger of his shooting hand a week ago — changed all that.
“It took me a little minute to get used to the pain when I’m shooting and dribbling,” Wright said. “But I calmed down, I forgot about it and I just tried to fight through the game.”
With the Cajuns trailing by seven early in the second half and having not done much to inspire confidence, Wright got the ball rolling on a comeback with a 3-pointer from the wing.
It was the first 3-pointer of the night for the Cajuns. Suddenly the crowd started to wake up, and so did his teammates.
Wright stole the ball on Georgia State’s next possession and assisted Bryce Washington for a layup to make it a two-point game.
Johnathan Stove blocked Jeremy Hollowell on the next Georgia State possession, and when T.J. Shipes came down with the rebound, Wright swiped it from him and went coast-to-coast to tie the game with an up-and-under layup. He was fouled on the play and he made the ensuing free throw to give the Cajuns their first lead of the night.
A Steven Wronkoski 3-pointer from the corner capped an 11-0 run and put the Cajuns ahead by four.
The Panthers had their own run left in them, though. Georgia State came in looking like a team that needed to get rid of a two and a half month old bad taste in its mouth.
Neither team built a lead larger than six in the final 10 minutes of the game, but the Panthers were the better team over the final five minutes.
The Cajuns took a 58-52 lead — their largest lead of the game — with 5:26 remaining, but Georgia State ripped off a 10-0 run over the next three minutes to take a four-point lead.
“It was disappointing, because we had three turnovers during the second half and two of them were during that stretch,” Marlin said.
Wright answered that run with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 2:00 to go, but that was the Cajuns last basket until a Steve Wronkoski 3-pointer with seven seconds remaining provided the final score.
The Cajuns got off to an abysmal start, with their first four possessions ending in this sequence: airball 3-pointer, travel, travel, two missed free throws.
That set the tone for an uninspired first half that saw them score 23 points — which was tied with the first half against Texas State as their worst scoring output in any half this season.
They didn’t get their first point until the game was almost four minutes old, and it took more than 16 minutes for somebody other than Johnathan Stove or Bryce Washington to score.
Not only did he not score in the first 16 minutes, but senior forward Shawn Long, who entered the game as the leading scorer in the Sun Belt Conference, didn’t even take his first shot attempt until the 5:54 mark of the first half.
“We need to get him more touches, and the zone was effective for them,” Marlin said.
The Cajuns also committed 11 first-half turnovers to just two by Georgia State and did not make a single 3-pointer.
So, all things considered, it was remarkable they only went to the locker room trailing by eight points.
“We had to change our energy,” Washington said. “We came out kind of flat.”
The Cajuns fell into fourth place in the conference standings with Thursday’s loss. It’s possible they could fall into fifth place — thus losing a first-round bye in the SBC tournament — with a loss to Georgia Southern Saturday, but Marlin wasn’t interested in the scenarios after the game.
“If we take care of business, we won’t have to worry about that,” Marlin said.