NEW ORLEANS — With about 10 minutes to go in the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team’s quarterfinal matchup with South Alabama in the Sun Belt Conference tournament Friday, the only issue in question was just how big of a night Shawn Long would have.
He had just hit his fourth 3-pointer to put the Ragin’ Cajuns ahead by 18 with 10 minutes, 38 seconds to go. A minute and a half later, he hit his fifth, giving him 30 points and his team a 21-point lead.
Long finished with a career-high 34 points, which he piled up in just 26 minutes, as the Cajuns rolled to a 90-68 win against South Alabama.
“He’s nearly impossible to stop … when he’s making 3s,” South Alabama coach Matthew Graves said.
It was Long’s third 30-point game of his career and first since he set his previous high of 31 points against Texas-Arlington in February 2014.
Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin saw his big man shooting the ball well in practice and, wanting him to avoid foul trouble by banging in the post, Marlin told him to square up and shoot if South Alabama gave him space in the high post.
“He basically gave me the green light, and I tried my best to take advantage of that,” Long said.
The Cajuns (17-13) next face No. 1 seed Little Rock at 1 p.m. Saturday. This is their third consecutive season reaching the tournament’s semifinal round.
“We know we can win this tournament,” Marlin said. “We’ve still got some work to do, obviously.”
The game was never really in doubt for the Cajuns, who could not have gotten off to a much better start.
Offensively, they were in a great rhythm from the beginning. They shot better than 60 percent in the first 14 minutes, including five 3-pointers. Long made a pair of those 3s and finished the first half with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
The more impressive effort might have been on the defensive end.
South Alabama (14-19) turned the ball over 13 times in the first half, and the Cajuns scored 15 points off those miscues. On the flip side, the Cajuns turned it over just five times, and South Alabama did not convert any of those turnovers into points.
The Cajuns finished with 27 points off 19 South Alabama turnovers.
“We were active. We had a lot of deflections at the half,” Marlin said. “We played man and zone and mixed it up a little bit. We were able to cause them some problems on the offensive end, and we were able to convert as well.”
Washington played a big part in the Cajuns’ defensive effort. He matched his career high in steals (four) by halftime and finished with six of the Cajuns’ 11 steals.
The Jaguars were playing without leading scorer Ken Williams, who broke his foot in their win against Georgia Southern on Thursday. Williams averaged 15.5 points per game this season and was a consistent thorn in the Cajuns’ side when the teams played.
Graves said the team found out at about 9:30 a.m. Friday that Williams would not be available to play again this season.
“It’s just a different game when he plays,” Graves said. “Our rotations are a little bit tighter; they have to guard us differently when he’s in the ballgame. It’s hard to say when you take any player out of the game, different things happen. There’s no question that we missed his leadership and his shot-making ability.”
Still, South Alabama was able to stay within striking distance thanks to some deft shooting from the outside. The Jaguars knocked down 5 of 8 3-pointers in the first half to keep the Cajuns’ lead to 14 points at halftime.
The Jaguars looked like they might be about to give the Cajuns a run early in the second half when a Nick Stover layup capped a 9-2 run and made it a 10-point game. But a Kasey Shepherd corner 3-pointer started a 14-2 run in response, pushing the Cajuns’ lead to 22 and ending the Jaguars’ last and best chance.
The Cajuns made 10 3-pointers in the game, their best team effort since they converted 10 in an overtime loss against Texas-Arlington in February.
“If they shoot the ball, if they make 10 or more 3s, they’re going to be a really tough out in this tournament,” Graves said.
The Cajuns will try to carry that momentum into Saturday’s game against Little Rock, which entered Friday’s action with the NCAA’s third-stingiest scoring defense (59.8 points per game). But after Friday’s win, the Cajuns have confidence on their side.
“We’ve got to bring it out there tomorrow, because Little Rock’s a good team,” Long said. “But I think we’re capable of beating them.”