Somebody needed to strike the match for the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team against Texas State, and junior guard Kasey Shepherd provided the hot hand.
Shepherd scored 13 of his game-high 16 points in the second half of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 53-43 win Friday in the Sun Belt tournament quarterfinals at Lakefront Arena, and it was his shooting stroke that ignited a 30-11 run to close the final 15:42 of regulation.
“That’s the goal for me every game coming off the bench,” he said. “Try to get the spark.”
The win was the seventh straight for the Cajuns, who advanced to face the tournament’s top seed, Georgia State, in Saturday’s semifinals at 1 p.m. The Cajuns and Panthers split their season series.
The Cajuns had just gotten through one of their most miserable halves all season, scoring just 18 points in the first 20 minutes against Texas State. The Bobcats built their lead to nine in the second half, and it looked like the Cajuns were letting their NCAA tournament hopes slip away.
But Shepherd caught them and held firm. With a little less than 15 minutes left, Shepherd stepped into a 3-pointer from the right wing and made it.
It was only the third bucket of the half for the Cajuns — and only their eighth of the game — but it seemed to finally shake the Cajuns out of their doldrums.
In the eight minutes after Shepherd’s 3-pointer, the Cajuns hit four of their next six shots from the floor and 10-of-12 from the free-throw line to turn a nine-point deficit into a seven-point advantage.
During that stretch, Shepherd scored nine points, assisted on two other buckets and pulled down a pair of defensive rebounds. He was constantly pushing the pace and either driving to the lane or feeding a crashing teammate.
“With me attacking, everybody else started to attack,” Shepherd said. “We picked up our energy, and we were able to hold on to the lead.”
Hanging on to the lead was made easier by the Cajuns defense. The Bobcats shot just 27.7 percent and struggled to adapt when the Cajuns turned to a half-court trap defense.
“We worked on it this week in case we needed it,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “It’s just something to spark us a little bit. (Texas State) doesn’t attack the trap as hard as some teams do, so we felt like we could do it and not get burnt by it. Fortunately, we got our hands on some balls and that gave us a spurt.”
Making things slightly remarkable was the fact that the Cajuns did almost all of that without much contribution from their all-conference players, Shawn Long and Jay Wright.
Wright was 1-for-11 from the floor despite getting several good looks at the basket off dribble penetration. The Cajuns tried to feed Long the ball, but he went 2-of-7 in 23 minutes.
“Two guys that have really been carrying us down the stretch and scoring the basketball,” Marlin said.
Long picked up his fourth foul with 12:56 remaining and spent the next 81/2 minutes on the bench. Even without their best player on the floor, the Cajuns outscored Texas State 18-9 during that stretch.
Picking up Long’s slack was freshman Bryce Washington, who was playing for the first time as a collegian in his native New Orleans. The St. Augustine product stayed on the court for 38 minutes, snagging 10 boards and scoring six points on 3-for-3 shooting.
“(Long) was in foul trouble a couple games this season, so it really wasn’t new to me,” Washington said. “I just had to step up my play and be a leader out there.”
The Cajuns actually jumped to a solid start from the floor. Xavian Rimmer and Shepherd sank back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Cajuns a 15-10 lead with 11 minutes remaining in the first half.
But the well quickly dried up. The Cajuns’ last bucket of the first half came on a layup by Washington with 8:53 to go in the first half.
At one point, the Cajuns missed 18 consecutive shots, many of which came at the rim or on good looks from the perimeter.
The Bobcats failed to capitalized, though. The Cajuns limited Texas State to a 7-of-28 effort from the floor in the first half.
“Our defense kept us in it,” Marlin said.
The last time UL-Lafayette and Georgia State met in the conference tournament was in last year’s championship game, which the Cajuns won 82-81 in a thrilling overtime matchup.