LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin was navigating the postgame news conference after his team reeled off its ninth straight win Thursday when he heard the final score of the Louisiana-Monroe-Little Rock game that had just finished in Monroe.
Little Rock entered that game leading the NCAA in scoring defense.
Little Rock finished that game giving up a season-high 86 points in an 86-82 loss that snapped a six-game winning streak.
“Eighty-six? Yeah, I’ll take 86,” Marlin deadpanned. “I spoke with (Little Rock coach Chris) Beard (Thursday); we’re going to have dinner (Friday) night. Maybe I can talk them into giving us 86.”
But here’s one thing that’s not a joking matter: The Cajuns, once a floundering 1-3 in Sun Belt Conference competition, will play for a share of first place in the league on their home court against Little Rock on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a game for first place, and it’s also important because we need to beat Little Rock — not many people are beating them,” Marlin said. “We don’t want to get swept by anyone, either, and they’re the last team out there that has a chance to sweep us.”
But it’ll take a little more than a casual suggestion over dinner to get to the top of the conference heap, which they’ve been scrapping so hard to reach over the past month.
The Trojans handed the Cajuns one of their three conference losses in January, holding the Cajuns to 57 points in a 77-57 win in Little Rock. The Cajuns connected on just two of their final 20 field-goal attempts.
The Cajuns learned about the Trojans’ defensive capabilities that night but also learned a valuable lesson from some self-scouting after the game.
“After watching the film and talking to the coaches, we have a better understanding of our offense and what to do when we do get in a situation where the 3s aren’t going in, the jump shots aren’t going in,” senior guard Kasey Shepherd said. “Now we understand what plays and niches in the offense we need to go to whenever things like that happen.”
The Cajuns have reeled off nine wins in 10 games since then — a final-seconds loss to Arkansas State in the game immediately following the Little Rock matchup serving as the only stumbling point — and their ability to find baskets when they need them has been a huge reason why.
During the nine-game winning streak, the Cajuns have scored at least 72 points in every game and are averaging a whopping 83.7 points. On average, they’ve won by 16 points during the streak. They’ll need that offensive firepower to continue against Little Rock’s stout defense.
It helps that the game is at home. The Cajuns are 11-0 on the Cajundome hardwood, which Marlin said is the best start at home since the Cajuns moved into the building. On their home court, the Cajuns are averaging 88.5 points.
Shepherd said it could be that the team is comfortable shooting where it practices. He said it could also be the fan support. With the Cajuns rolling, the atmosphere lately has been a raucous one.
“Every year, that’s one of the goals: to go undefeated at home,” Shepherd said. “Coach Marlin stresses that a lot, so we’ve been trying to take advantage of every home game we’ve got.”
But the Cajuns aren’t counting on Little Rock to gift them 86 points Saturday because of comfort shooting in their own building or support from the fans in a brighter shade of red than what the Trojans wear — not with first place on the line.
Even the guy on the team who’s mostly known for his offensive approach knows that.
“This is a championship game come Saturday,” guard Hayward Register said. “You’ve got to play your best game, and it’s going to come down to defense because it’s probably going to be a low-scoring game.”
NOTE: Fans can purchase two tickets to Saturday’s doubleheader for $10 by visiting the Cajundome box office starting at 10 a.m. Saturday. The games are also scheduled as Youth Hoops Day; all kids wearing a basketball jersey will receive free admission when accompanied by an adult.