LAFAYETTE — Coach Bob Marlin sees no point in diminishing the importance of the Cajuns road contest against UT-Arlington Saturday to his team.
The winner secures a hold on the four seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, the loser is on the outside looking in with just three games remaining in the regular season.
“I told the guys that we need to try to get this one Saturday, and we need to hold on to it,” Marlin said.
The last time the Cajuns (15-12, 9-7) faced UT-Arlington (15-10, 9-6), they allowed the Mavericks to race past them in a listless second half. UT-Arlington outscored the Cajuns 43-24 in the second half of their last meeting, during which the Cajuns only made 28 percent of their shots and were outrebounded 19-14.
But the Cajuns have won back-to-back games for just the second time since jumping out to a 4-0 start in conference play, and they limited Texas State to 42 points, a season low for the Cajuns defensively, the last time out on the court.
Part of the recent surge can be traced to point guard Jay Wright, who has shot better than 50 percent in each of his last two games after going through a bit of a shooting slump.
“We’ve been on a slump, and we’re trying to get this momentum back that we had at the beginning of the year when we started conference,” said sophomore guard Jay Wright.
The Cajuns can feel the tournament right around the corner, and despite the fact that the regular season hasn’t gone how they envisioned it, they know the important stretch of the season is now.
“When you start to get close to tournament time, it’s good to get good wins in a row, that allows you to peak,” said junior guard Kasey Shepherd. “Coach Marlin talks about that all the time — peaking at the right time. Hopefully we can keep winning going into the tournament and we’ll be playing at a high level.”
“I think we still need to get better executing in the half court offense,” Shepherd said. “Our defense can improve, definitely. I think we still need to work on that, that’s probably going to be our biggest thing. But if we can keep improving on those two things and keep winning going into the tournament, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Mavericks are a guard-oriented team with three players averaging double figures. The Cajuns bottled up Lonnie McClanahan, who leads UT-Arlington with an 11.6 points per game average, in the first meeting. But forward Jorge Bilbao picked up his slack by shattering his previous career high by scoring 17 points against the Cajuns.
Regardless of what happened in the last meeting, or maybe because of it, the Cajuns are going into Saturday’s contest confident.
“This is a big game,” Shepherd said. “One that we can get and one that we need to get. … When we get ready to play Saturday night, it’s going to mean something to us and we’re going to have to go in there and take care of business.”
Ladies look to keep pace
The Cajuns’ ladies bounced back from a tough loss on the road to Troy by throttling Texas State 64-41, gaining a game on the Bobcats for fourth place in conference seeding.
But in order to keep moving up, the Cajuns (17-8, 9-7) will have to fend off UT-Arlington (14-10, 8-7), who is hot on their tail.
The Cajuns have been one of the Sun Belt’s best defensive teams all season, but they turned it up a notch against Texas State, holding the Bobcats to just nine made field goals for the entire contest.
Guard Keke Veal scored 24 points for the Cajuns against Texas State, while Kia Wilridge added 12 points and five steals.
Much like the men’s team, the ladies were outscored by 20 points in the second half of their last meeting with UT-Arlington, erasing a 14-point halftime deficit to beat the Cajuns 57-51.