The emotions finally spilled out — just a little — for UL-Lafayette’s men's basketball team Saturday night.
After a notable lack of celebration Thursday, when the Ragin’ Cajuns locked up a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship, there was a lot more joy on faces after blitzing longtime rival South Alabama in the second half in an 88-71 road win to clinch the outright league title.
“They’re a lot more excited tonight,” said Cajuns coach Bob Marlin, less than an hour after his team had gone on a 17-0 run in a four-minute second-half stretch to lock up a record-tying 25th win. "There’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of buy-in from a lot of guys on this team, and they’re just starting to reap the rewards of that.”
UL-Lafayette athletic director Dr. Bryan Maggard and a large group of Cajuns fans made the four-hour trek to Mobile for what they hoped would be an historic night, and they weren’t disappointed. And it wasn’t just because the Cajuns took their first win in seven years in USA’s Mitchell Center.
“With the Sun Belt schedule, we don’t come back here next year,” Marlin said after UL-Lafayette’s 14th double-digit win in its 15-1 Sun Belt run. “I told our guys that, and I challenged them to leave a lasting impression for the people who watched you play here. From my standpoint, it was a good impression.”
Thursday’s 81-76 win at Troy marked the only time this season the Cajuns hadn’t won a league game by double figures. That victory also insured a trophy and a banner, but the outright league title and the No. 1 seed in the March 7-11 Sun Belt Tournament was still in play going into Saturday.
As it turned out, the Cajuns (25-4) knew those boxes had already been checked off even before they took the floor Saturday. Georgia State’s 89-81 loss at Texas-Arlington meant that nobody could match the Cajuns’ league record even if they lost all of their last three games.
A loss looked like a possibility Saturday. The host Jaguars led by as many as eight in the first eight minutes and then rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to forge a 54-54 tie on Rodrick Sikes’ layup. It was still tied at 56 when Frank Bartley hit his only 3-pointer of the night with 11:49 left to give UL-Lafayette the lead for good.
Four minutes later it was 73-56 on two Bartley free throws, and South Alabama never got closer than 13 the rest of the way.
Bartley finished with 17 points and fellow senior Bryce Washington had the 12th double-double of the season and 37th of his career with 11 points and 13 rebounds, but it was the bench that provided the Cajuns their first outright Sun Belt title since 2000.
Jerekius Davis had 18 first-half points on his way to a career-high 20, Johnathan Stove had 15 and P.J. Hardy added eight as the UL-Lafayette bench scored exactly half of the team’s 88-point total. Davis and Hardy played a combined one minute in the Thursday win.
“These guys do that in practice every day,” Marin said. “Jerekius has days in practice that we can’t stop him. It’s been like that all year. We need those guys, because you never know when your number’s gonna be called.”
Davis scored 14 straight points for the Cajuns in the first half to help wipe out that early USA eight-point advantage. The lead changed hands 18 times in that first half before Malik Marquetti banged in a half-court shot — his only basket of the game — at the halftime horn to give UL-Lafayette a 45-43 advantage.
Along with clinching the outright title, the other important number were the 25th win, tying UL-Lafayette’s school record set three other times, and the 10th road win that put them at 10-3 away from home. Only three teams in the country have more road victories, and no other team in the nation has won 10 road games while staying unbeaten at home (13-0).
The Cajuns will also take a 16-game win streak in the Cajundome into their final regular-season games, and they’ll be solid favorites against both Arkansas State on Thursday and Little Rock for Saturday’s senior day celebration. And on Saturday, Marlin said it will be a celebration.
“These seniors seem like they’re checking off another box just about every day,” he said. “We’re excited to be coming home for these last two to let them get the chance to play a couple more times in front of our fans. But we want to make sure we continue to push because we’ve still got a lot of goals to accomplish.”