The trophy is locked up and the banner that proclaims UL-Lafayette as Sun Belt Conference basketball champions is assured, but there wasn’t a lot of celebrating late Thursday night.
Even afterward, off the floor and away from the public eye in Troy’s Trojan Arena, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said there wasn’t any jumping around in celebration of the school’s first Sun Belt title since the end of the 1999-2000 season.
“There wasn’t a lot of excitement in the locker room,” Marlin said. “This is a pretty focused group, and they know there are bigger things in front of them.”
Senior forward Bryce Washington put it into context after his eight-point, 10-rebound, two-block performance that also included a lock-down defensive effort.
“Another day at the office for us,” Washington said immediately after the Cajuns’ 81-76 win over the Trojans that insured no worse than a share of the league title.
The win boosted UL-Lafayette (24-4, 14-1) into a position of reaching a major goal Saturday when they square off against longtime rival South Alabama (14-14, 7-8) at 7:05 p.m. in USA’s Mitchell Center in Mobile in their final regular-season road game.
The Cajuns need only one win in their last three regular-season games, or one loss by Georgia State (11-4), to claim the outright league title, the No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament in two weeks and an assured berth in postseason play. The regular-season champion is locked into an NIT berth should it not make the NCAA tournament field.
That would mark the Cajuns' first appearance in one of those events since an NCAA berth in 2013-14, meaning no player on the current squad has experienced that level of postseason play. But Marlin said Washington’s restrained celebration, and that of the entire team, was one reason the Cajuns are within one win of tying their school record for victories in a season.
"All those other guys follow his lead,” Marlin said of Washington, who had his fourth straight double-figure rebound game. “We have great leadership from him, Johnathan Stove, Frank Bartley. We’ve talked about it time and time again, but the leadership from those three has been superb.”
The Cajuns needed that leadership in Thursday’s second half, when Troy rallied in the final seven minutes. The Cajuns led by five at the half and by 13 points at the seven-minute mark when Justin Miller’s inside basket capped a 23-11 run and made it 70-57. Troy, though, went on an 11-0 run of its own to cut the margin to two before Bartley’s twisting jumper, an inside basket from Washington and seven free throws down the stretch.
Bartley had 13 of his game-high 22 in the second half after JaKeenan Gant had a 15-point first half, giving him 34 points in the first halves of UL-Lafayette’s two games against Troy this year. Gant also had three 3-pointers and nine rebounds; as a team, the Cajuns enjoyed a 46-30 rebounding edge.
“We had a couple of execution breakdowns defensively or we’d have had a bigger lead at the half,” said Marlin, who recorded the 500th win in a head coaching career that includes stops at Pensacola Junior College and Sam Houston State. “This was a little bit harder than it needed to be, but I told the guys in a timeout late that we needed this, a close conference game, and this was good for us, and we responded.”
Marlin can reach another milestone in Saturday’s game against the Jaguars, whom the Cajuns beat 76-57 back on Jan. 25 at the Cajundome. A win would give Marlin 153 victories at UL-Lafayette, tying him for fourth on the school’s all-time coaching list.
Those milestones keep coming. Thursday’s victory set a school record for Sun Belt wins since the Cajuns joined the league for the 1991-92 season, topping the previous mark of 13 reached three times.
A Saturday win also would be UL-Lafayette's 25th overall, tying the school mark set in 1970-71 (25-4) and matched in 1971-72 (25-4) and 1999-2000 (25-9), when the Cajuns last won the Sun Belt title.
“Championships are not easy to win, and you never take this for granted,” Marlin said. “There’s a lot of hard work involved, and we knew this was going to be a difficult one. (Troy) can still finish as high as third and get a bye in the tournament, so they’re fighting for positioning, and we’re glad to get this one and get one step closer to our goal.”