Despite a valiant effort, the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team couldn’t climb out of a hole it spent three quarters of the game digging.
“It’s a miracle we got as close as we did,” coach Bob Marlin said.
Top-seeded Georgia State hung on for an 83-79 victory in the Sun Belt Conference tournament semifinals Saturday at Lakefront Arena after the No. 4 seed Cajuns outscored the Panthers 40-21 over the final 7 minutes, 48 seconds to claw back into the game.
In Sunday’s noon title game, Georgia State will face Georgia Southern, which edged Louisiana-Monroe 44-43 in Saturday’s other semifinal.
The Cajuns’ rally began when Kasey Shepherd drilled a 3-pointer just 7 seconds after an R.J. Hunter jumper put the Panthers ahead by 23 with 7:55 to play. The Cajuns started chipping away at the Panthers’ lead as they found a soft spot in the Georgia State zone.
“We told them in a timeout to get to the soft spot of the zone and drive it,” Marlin said. “We got some layups and 3s, and we were able to get back in it.”
All of a sudden, the Cajuns roared to life. Shepherd’s 3 started a barrage of buckets as the Cajuns sank 9 of 10 shots, culminating in an up-and-under layup by Steve Wronkoski with 2:30 remaining to trim Georgia State’s lead to single digits for the first time since the 1:48 mark of the first half.
After a momentary dry spell, the Cajuns connected on their final six shots of the game, all of which came in the final minute, to go on a 15-5 run in the final 52 seconds.
But they simply ran out of time. The 40 points the Cajuns put up over the final eight minutes topped the 39 they scored in the game’s first 32 minutes.
“It shows the heart, and some of our players have a lot of heart,” said Shepherd, who scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half. “They never gave up on each other and fought hard for each other. We were able to make a big comeback; we just fell short at the end.”
And if you’re looking for a way to sum up those first 32 minutes, the final play of the first half tells the story.
Trailing by 15 points with five seconds to go, the Cajuns turned the ball over on an inbounds play. Panthers guard Isaiah Dennis scooped up the loose ball and sprinted downcourt, throwing down a dunk before the buzzer to send the Panthers to the locker room with a 44-27 lead.
Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said his players convinced him to run a press, and he listened to their request against his assistant coaches’ judgment — though Marlin said after the game it was more of a trap defense.
Whatever the terminology, Georgia State got its hands in the passing lanes and quickly turned a close game into a blowout by scoring 22 points off 13 Cajuns turnovers in the first half. The Panthers finished the game with 29 points off turnovers.
“We knew they were going to play aggressive defense,” said Cajuns junior forward Devonta Walker, who finished with a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds. “We just didn’t take care of the ball.”
The Panthers built the lead to 24 points by the time the second half was 4 minutes old, and it hovered between 21 and 24 until the Cajuns started making their run.
The Panthers ran away with the early portion of the game despite getting no contribution from first-team all conference player Ryan Harrow, who strained a hamstring in the regular-season finale and was limited to 6 minutes Saturday.
Harrow has been a major thorn in the side of the Cajuns in the past two seasons, but he didn’t need to be a factor the way R.J. Hunter was playing. The two-time SBC Player of the Year took it upon himself to provide extra scoring punch in Harrow’s absence. He poured in 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting, including a 7-for-8 effort at the free-throw line in the second half.
As much attention as Hunter’s scoring ability gets, his defense might have had a bigger impact Saturday. The junior guard posted eight steals, leading the way for a Panthers defense that forced 21 turnovers.
Marlin hopes this is not the end of his team’s season, and that some tournament will pick up a team that won seven of its final eight games. The Cajuns will learn their fate Sunday night.
“We’ll wait and see what happens,” he said. “I think it’s probably 50/50. I think we’re very deserving. ...
“This team has done some very good things. They’ve grown together at the end of the year, and I really like our nucleus moving forward.”