LAFAYETTE — When the University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team faced Texas-Arlington three weeks ago, it was not a nice welcome into the Sun Belt Conference for the Mavericks.
The Ragin’ Cajuns broke out to a 45-27 halftime advantage and led by as many as 27 points midway through the second half on the way to a 90-70 win Jan. 11 at the Cajundome. It was the start of a two-game stretch against the Sun Belt’s new Texas members that UL-Lafayette swept by a combined 43 points.
Things are different now. Despite a 66-50 home win over state rival UL-Monroe on Saturday, the Cajuns (13-9, 4-5 Sun Belt) have lost three of their past four. Meanwhile, UTA (9-12, 4-5) had won four of five before last-minute road losses to Western Kentucky and Georgia State, the league’s top two teams, this past weekend.
When the teams square off at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, this one will be at UTA’s College Park Center, marking the Cajuns’ first appearance in that facility. The Cajuns have lost five of their past six road games.
The biggest factor Thursday, though, will likely be UTA senior guard Reger Dowell. The Sun Belt’s leading scorer, who ranks 12th nationally (21.3), did not play in the first meeting because of a leg injury. Since he returned, Dowell has led the Mavs in scoring in four out of five games.
“He’s back, and he’s shooting the ball well,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “With him back playing, they’re a different team. If we’re not careful, they’re going to shoot it well from the perimeter. ... They did that at Western (Kentucky) and Georgia State.”
UTA lost by five at Western Kentucky and had a three-point lead with two seconds left at league-leading Georgia State before being forced into overtime, when the host Panthers eventually won 101-91.
The Cajuns know what it’s like to play without one of their mainstays. Sophomore forward Shaun Long was suspended for one game last week for “conduct detrimental to the program,” and the Cajuns lost 80-69 at Arkansas-Little Rock despite 14 points and 11 rebounds from backup big man J. J. Davenport.
Long (19.8 points, 10.9 rebounds) returned against ULM on Saturday and posted his 12th double-double of the season with 12 points and 12 rebounds off the bench. In the earlier meeting with UTA, Long had a 22-point, nine-rebound outing that included a career-high seven blocked shots.
On Saturday, junior guard Elfrid Payton more than took up the scoring slack with a 28-point effort, going 13-of-14 from the field. The Cajuns limited the Warhawks to 35 percent shooting and held ULM without a field-goal for an eight-minute span.
“We struggled some early,” Marlin said of that win. “We had put something new in offensively, and as good as it looked on Friday, it didn’t look good on Saturday night, and we had to change and get out of that. After that, we were able to attack the basket and go on a nice run.
“Part of the reason we changed was that Elfrid was getting to the basket. He’s so efficient at getting to the rim, sometimes his teammates stand and watch him, sometimes his coaches stand and watch him. We have to get some other things going and keep both sides of the floor occupied so he can get to the middle and score.”
UL-Lafayette has nine games remaining before the Sun Belt tournament, and Marlin said every one will be pivotal. The Cajuns face Texas State at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in San Marcos, Texas, in the second half of the Texas swing.
“We played a solid first half at UALR last week and didn’t defend as well as we needed in the second half,” Marlin said. “Saturday, other than losing them (Warhawks) a couple of times in the press, we had one of the better defensive games we’ve played.
“We have to continue to play well defensively, and we have to continue to shoot and score. ... Hopefully we can continue to feed off our defense, because that’s when we’re at our best offensively.”