LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette had chances over the past five days to claim second place in the Sun Belt Conference standings and take the tiebreaker advantage over the only team with a better record.
Instead, the Ragin’ Cajuns have a 3-4 conference mark, are outside the league’s upper division for the first time this year and are smarting from two home-court losses in a 48-hour period.
The numbers show why the Cajuns fell 77-70 to league leader Georgia State and 79-70 to second-place occupier Western Kentucky on Thursday and Saturday, giving UL-Lafayette three losses in its last four games.
“You have to make shots, you have to make free throws and you have to get stops when you need them,” said Cajun director of basketball operations Michael Murphy, filling in for an ill head coach Bob Marlin at Monday’s weekly media luncheon.
The Cajuns didn’t shoot over 40 percent in either game, their opponents outscored them by 21 points at the free-throw line, and the hosts had bad stretches late in both games. Against unbeaten (7-0) GSU, UL-Lafayette led 62-59 with three minutes left, and two minutes later trailed 69-62.
After trailing by 16 points early in Saturday’s second half against WKU, the Cajuns cut the margin to two with 6:51 left on Bryant Mbamalu’s jumper ... only to see the Hilltoppers score the next seven points.
“Our guys did a great job when we went to our press Saturday,” Murphy said, “and when we got turnovers we turned them into points. We got back-to-back steals that we got layups, and we had another when we stole the ball and they (WKU) were given a time out. That was a big possession.”
For the majority of those games, however, Cajun shooting woes led to extended stretches of offensive woes. UL-Lafayette was 28-of-70 from the floor and 3-of-19 from three-point range against a GSU team that hit 8-of-14 outside the arc, and followed that with a 38.3 percent showing (23-of-60) against WKU.
The Cajuns’ top three scorers, Shawn Long (20.1), Elfrid Payton (19.6) and Mbamalu (8.4), are all below 65 percent from the line this year. However, it wasn’t the percentage that hurt in last weekend’s losses as much as not getting to the line nearly as often as their opponents. UL-Lafayette was 30-of-43 on free throws in the two games while GSU and WKU were a combined 51-of-64.
“If you look at Thursday (against GSU), we made seven more shots, we outrebounded them by 18 and we only had 11 turnovers,” Murphy said. “But we got killed at the free-throw line. We were pretty solid in all those areas.
“Elfrid and Shawn, they’re two and three in scoring in the league so people are going to be physical with them. They’re going to get a lot of contact. They were getting hit a lot.”
“They (the officials) let a lot of things go,” said Payton, who had 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting against WKU Saturday. “Especially at the rim. I thought I got hit a couple of times, and then Shawn got touch fouls that caused him to be in foul trouble.”
Both Payton and Long fouled out against GSU, and Long only played 26 minutes with foul trouble on Saturday and was limited to 13 points, his second-lowest total of the year.
“It’s not that we’re not closing out games,” Murphy said. “We have to hit those shots early in games, in the front end, and take advantage of those possessions to put ourselves in a better situation at the end.”
The Cajuns will play three of their next four Sun Belt games on the road, taking their 12-8, 3-4 marks to Little Rock, Ark., Thursday to face UALR. The Trojans are 5-3 in league play, but had a bad 77-49 loss at Arkansas State on Saturday.
“Western came in Saturday and tried to be very physical with us,” Murphy said, “and we expect the same thing Thursday. A Steve Shields coached team is going to defend and be very physical. They had some injuries and illnesses last week, but we know it’s going to be a hard-nosed game and we have to take advantage of every possession.”