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UL-Lafayette guard Frank Bartley (4) drives to the goal during the first half of a game against Appalachian State at the Cajundome on Jan. 4.

Advocate photo by Paul Kieu

Conference play in college basketball is when games become close, tight, nail-biting affairs, decided in the final minutes, when the home team often has a noticeable advantage.

Someone forgot to tell UL-Lafayette about the rigors of league play.

The Ragin’ Cajuns (17-3, 7-0 Sun Belt) are unbeaten in conference play going into their game at 7:15 p.m. Thursday with longtime rival South Alabama. But that school-record string of conference wins doesn’t adequately describe the Cajuns’ dominance over Sun Belt teams this season.

All seven wins were by double-digit margins. With the exception of win No. 2 at Arkansas State, when the Cajuns and Red Wolves were tied with four minutes left in what became an 88-78 victory, all the other Sun Belt games were decided well before the final moments.

Even against highly regarded Texas-Arlington last Thursday, UL-Lafayette led by double-digits over the last two minutes after trailing by 12 points. Then, on the second half of that Texas road swing, the Cajuns took control early and went on to thump a solid Texas State team 80-55.

“I’m really proud of the way we defended and fought back and didn’t give in after falling behind at UTA,” said Cajuns coach Bob Marlin, whose team is one of 19 nationally that’s still perfect in conference play. “We thought Texas State was going to be a totally different type game, but we were able to do a good job defensively, and we were definitely ready to play in the first half.”

The Cajuns have outscored Sun Belt foes by almost 21 points per game, even though four of their seven games have been on the road. Over the past five games, that scoring margin was more than 24 per outing.

It’s not like UL-Lafayette has been spectacular offensively, even though the Cajuns lead the Sun Belt and rank ninth nationally in scoring margin (15.2) and 22nd nationally in points per game (84.3). They’re shooting 46 percent from the floor in their last five games and under 40 percent outside the arc (.390) in conference play, and only one player is averaging more than 12 points per game in Sun Belt play (Frank Bartley, 18.4).

Quietly, though, UL-Lafayette has become a defensive force. Opponents shot 45 percent from the field in nonconference play, and the Cajuns have dropped that number to 39 percent since Sun Belt play began. Their last five foes were only 36 percent from the field and 28 percent on 3-point shots.

UL-Lafayette’s assist-to-turnover ratio offensively leads the league, but the numbers they’ve forced opponents into in those last five games is much more impressive. The last five foes are averaging only nine assists per game and turning it over 16 times per game.

“Coach is always on us to play hard on defense,” said senior forward Bryce Washington, who is averaging 12.7 rebounds in league play. “But we take a lot of pride in that. When we’re playing good on defense, you can see the effect it has on the other team.”

This weekend's games against the Alabama teams again provide different tests. South Alabama (11-9, 4-3) struggled early in the season but has come on strong since the start of Sun Belt play. The Jaguars swept home games against Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State last weekend and have won three of their last four, but have not won on the road this season (0-7).

The Jaguars’ last loss, in fact, came in a 79-64 thumping at the hands of Troy two weeks ago. Troy is 2-4 in the league entering a Thursday game at UL-Monroe, but the Trojans are the defending Sun Belt tournament champions.

“South changed their lineup. They were playing bigger but they’re playing smaller now and they’re better now,” Marlin said. “(Rodrick) Sikes has shot it well and is really dominating the offense for them and that’s helped them a lot.”

The slender 6-foot-1, 155-pound Sikes, a junior college transfer, had 26 points and sophomore returnee Josh Ajayi had 24 points and 11 rebounds in USA’s Saturday win over Appalachian State. Sikes is averaging 18.6 per game and is over 20 per game in league play.

But the Jaguars also rank 321st nationally out of 350 teams in turnovers, giving it up almost 16 times per game. That could play into the Cajuns’ recent defensive surge.

“Commitment to defense is what’s put us in this position,” Marlin said. “We still need to be better defensively and we missed some block-outs at Texas State. We can still get better in both of those areas.”