Nearly 18 years had passed since UL-Lafayette’s men’s basketball team swept a Sun Belt Conference road swing through the state of Arkansas, and that drought was bouncing through coach Bob Marlin’s mind Sunday when Arkansas State was making almost every first-half shot.
“There’s never an easy game in Jonesboro,” Marlin said. “The crowd’s always on us pretty hard, they’re on the officials and it’s a good college basketball environment. But mostly, we didn’t defend in the first half.”
It didn’t help that the Ragin’ Cajuns played most of that half without Bryce Washington and JaKeenan Gant, who each had double-double performances two nights earlier in a 77-63 win at Little Rock that wasn’t as close as the final score. Washington and Gant each picked up two quick fouls and sat most of the first half of the New Year’s Eve afternoon contest.
Fortunately for the Cajuns, their bench came through, ASU’s shots didn’t fall as much after halftime and the Cajuns heated up on the way to an 88-78 win that put them 2-0 in the early Sun Belt race.
UL-Lafayette (12-3) was the only Sun Belt team to take two road wins in the opening weekend of league play and shares first place with South Alabama and Appalachian State, whom the Cajuns play Thursday at home.
“We told the guys going into Sunday that this was a game for first place,” Marlin said, “and Thursday we’ll have another game for first place. The difference is those two teams’ 2-0's are at home, and we had to go on the road to get two.”
The last time the Cajuns swept the Arkansas swing on one road trip was in February 2000, on the way to winning the Sun Belt’s regular-season and tournament titles. This time, the two double-digit wins came in very different manners.
In Friday’s win, the Cajuns didn’t shoot well but did everything else right early, clamping down defensively and controlling the boards on the way to a 42-24 halftime lead despite hitting only 41 percent from the floor.
On Saturday, UL-Lafayette feel behind by as many as six points early but rallied for a 40-all halftime tie despite Washington and Gant teaming for four points and 12 minutes of playing time and the host Red Wolves making 15 of their first 20 shots from the floor.
It was still tied late after back-to-back 3-pointers by ASU's Rashad Lindsey and Ty Cockfield made the score 74-74. Johnathan Stove nailed a baseline 3-pointer with 3:57 left to break the tie and spark a decisive 9-0 Cajuns run.
“We’d just had a series when they made a 3, we had one that went in taken away on a foul call and they came down and made another 3,” Marlin said. “That’s when I told the coaches that we’ve got to find a way to win this game because we just had about three really bad things go wrong for us. We were able to come back and make big plays, and Johnathan’s shot was one of those.”
Stove had 10 points and five assists off the bench, part of the Cajuns’ 22 assists in 31 made baskets. Point guard Marcus Stroman had 10 assists and 14 points for his first double-double; he came within two rebounds of a triple-double.
“That’s why I’ve been sleeping good for the last year,” Marlin said of Stroman. “That’s why we recruited him. He didn’t play well at times at Little Rock, and we challenged him Sunday and he stepped up and made some great passes. Our whole team did.”
Washington finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season, following a 19-rebound performance at Little Rock, and Gant finished with 10 points after a 20-point, 10-board showing against the Trojans. Frank Bartley led the Cajuns with 23 points, including four 3-pointers. Those three combined to shoot better than 70 percent in the second half as UL-Lafayette hit 15 of 24 from the field after halftime.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State had the same number of field goals in each half (15). The difference was the Red Wolves did that in only 20 first-half shots and needed 41 attempts after halftime to reach 15 makes. ASU missed 12 of its final 14 shots as the Cajuns pulled away in the final two minutes.
“We took their best shot,” Marlin said. “They played well, and they had everything going for them for a while. But we were able to get stops late, Frank made some big 3s for us, we pitched ahead and got a couple of nice dunks, and Bryce big-boyed every rebound down the stretch.”