UT-Arlington may be Cajuns’ toughest test down stretch run _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE Louisiana-Lafayette's Kasey Shepherd takes it to the hoop against Texas-Arlington on Jan. 30 at the Cajundome in Lafayette. The two teams meet again Thursday in Arlington, Texas.

With three weeks still to go in the regular season, Thursday’s road game at Texas-Arlington may not seem like a pivotal February moment. But it well could be for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s men’s basketball team.

The Ragin’ Cajuns (14-9, 10-4) are in second place in the Sun Belt. The fourth-place Mavericks (17-7, 8-5), could be the stiffest remaining test for the Cajuns.

After Thursday’s 7:15 p.m. game, none of UL-Lafayette’s last five conference games come against teams with winning league records. The five combined are 27-44 in Sun Belt play and 54-67 overall.

“We’ve already played at Little Rock and (UL) Monroe, and nobody’s won there,” coach Bob Marlin said. “And I don’t think anyone’s going to win there the rest of the way.”

The home court has indeed been good to the teams at the top of the standings. Along with UALR and ULM being perfect at home, the Cajuns and Mavericks each have only one home loss this season — both to league-leading and likely top-seed Little Rock.

UL-Lafayette’s Saturday 68-64 loss to the Trojans snapped a nine-game overall win streak and a string of 14 straight wins in the Cajundome. UTA lost to Little Rock 68-62 three weeks ago, a loss that started a four-game spiral that coincided with Mavericks standout Kevin Hervey (18.1 points, 9.8 rebounds) being lost for the season to a torn ACL.

One of those losses was 90-75 in the Cajundome.

But UTA has rebounded in a big way, sweeping Georgia State and Georgia Southern on the road by a combined 33 points and beating Appalachian State 91-60 at home on Saturday.

“They’re very good,” Marlin said of a Mavericks team coached by his friend, Scott Cross. “Scott’s team plays very aggressively, and they’re still just as tough defensively. They started good after their foreign tour when they had Hervey, and they’ve continued to play that way.”

The Mavericks started off 13-2 with four straight Sun Belt wins, and even with the recent cold streak UTA remains just behind the Cajuns in scoring offense (81.3 to 81.0). The Mavs are the Sun Belt’s best rebounding team (nearly nine more per game than their opponents) and lead the league in assist-turnover ratio.

Without Hervey’s offensive talents, guards Erick Neal (13.6) and Jalen Jones (12.4) have picked up the scoring slack, with both averaging higher in league play. The 5-foot-11 Neal leads the conference in assists with 5.8 per game.

But the Cajuns have some history on their side, specifically in senior postman Shawn Long’s performance. Long had a 22-point, 15-rebound game earlier this season against the Mavs, and in his past two trips to UTA’s College Park Center, he had 31 points and nine rebounds in 2014. and 21 points and 15 rebounds in 28 minutes last year.

In addition, backup guard Hayward Register hit five 3-pointers in each of those past two trips to UTA.

“Shawn and Hayward have had big games there,” Marlin said. “We hope that continues Thursday. Teams have been doing a good job the last couple of games not letting Shawn get touches, and he’s been frustrated.”

Long is averaging 18.9 points and 12.9 rebounds, the latter ranked third nationally. But over the past four games, it’s been sophomore guard and Christian Life graduate Johnathan Stove who has stepped forward with four straight double-digit games and a career-high 18 points in Saturday’s loss to Little Rock.

Thursday’s game is the first half of the league’s two-game Texas swing. The Cajuns play Texas State in San Marcos on Saturday. Next week, the Cajuns are at Troy and South Alabama before closing the regular season at home against Georgia State and Georgia Southern.