MOBILE, Ala. — Apparently, no Ragin’ Cajuns lead is safe against South Alabama’s Jaguars.
For the second time this season, Louisiana-Lafayette saw a double-digit lead evaporate against a hot-shooting Jaguars squad Thursday night. This time, it resulted in an 89-85 South Alabama win and the fifth loss in six Sun Belt Conference games for the reeling Cajuns squad.
Less than two weeks ago, USA (7-14, 5-5 Sun Belt) trailed by as many as 15 points before shooting nearly 70 percent in the second half on the way to an 89-82 win at the Cajundome. Thursday’s second half was, for the Cajuns, frighteningly similar.
UL-Lafayette led 43-33 at halftime, before the host Jaguars took control in the second half — at least, the first 16 minutes of the half. USA used a 21-7 run spanning the two halves to make up that deficit and take a 51-50 lead on Dionte Ferguson’s putback basket, and extended that advantage to nine points twice in the final five minutes.
But thanks to some shaky free throw shooting and two deep 3-pointers by postman Shawn Long, the Cajuns (11-10, 5-5) had chances in the final 30 seconds.
But two late possessions netted a 3-point miss and a turnover, and USA made four free throws in the final seven seconds to take their sixth win in the past seven meetings with UL-Lafayette.
“They like playing us,” said a frustrated Cajuns coach Bob Marlin. “They’ve won twice when they’ve trailed at the half, and we know which two those are.”
The Cajuns have lost only twice after leading at halftime this season — both against USA.
“We did a much better job in the second half,” USA coach Matt Graves said. “The biggest difference was that we were able to manage the offensive glass, and slow their transition game.”
The Jaguars shot 62.5 percent in the second half and ended up with four players in double figures, with Ferguson getting all of his 16 points in the second half and 12 of those in the first eight minutes after halftime. More importantly, a Cajuns squad that held a 19-10 rebound advantage at halftime was outrebounded 15-4 over the first 14 minutes of the second half.
Marlin was upset with a defense that allowed the Jaguars to hit 70 percent (28-of-40) of their non-blocked shots. Overall, USA was 28-of-48 from the field (58.2 percent) after shooting 38 percent from the floor and not breaking 60 points in losses to Appalachian State (64-53) and NJIT (72-55) last week.
“In all my years of coaching I’ve never had a team defend this poorly,” he said. “We’re last in the league in field goal defense. We ran five different defenses tonight ... we threw everything we had at them and didn’t slow them down.”
The Cajuns, meanwhile, struggled with balance despite also getting four in double figures. After Kasey Shepherd’s 3-pointer two minutes into the second half gave UL-Lafayette a 48-41 lead, no Cajun other than Long scored for the next nine and one-half minutes.
That led to the Cajuns’ 35.1 shooting percentage in the second half.
“When they weren’t able to get into transition,” Graves said, “and we kept them off the defensive boards, we were able to wear them down a little bit.”
Long finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds, after he had a 22-point, 22-rebound effort in the earlier meeting, and had 20 of those points in the second half including all 10 of UL-Lafayette’s points in that mid-half stretch.
Shepherd finished with 20, hitting a career-high five 3-pointers, and Long nailed his two treys in the final minute. Other than that pair, the Cajuns were one-for-eight outside the arc, a showing compounded by USA hitting 5 of 7 3-pointers in the second half.
“They didn’t drive the ball like they did the first time,” Marlin said. “We had a lot of breakdowns late in possessions, and it seemed like they made every shot late in the shot clock.”
UL-Lafayette, which travels to play at Texas State Saturday, led by as many as 13 points late in the first half on Devonta Walker’s offensive rebound putback that made it 43-30. Ferguson, though, keyed the rally and Stevens hit the third of his three treys in a nine-minute period to give SUA the lead for good at 56-54 with 11:02 left.
The lead was nine points with 3:39 left on Taishaun Johnson’s three-pointer, but the Cajuns hit six straight free throws and the Jaguars were 6-of-15 from the line over a two minute stretch.
But after Long’s two treys cut it to 83-81 with 32 seconds left, a turnover allowed USA to make the final four free throws.