LAFAYETTE — The fans who showed up to watch their first game in Blackham Coliseum in nearly a decade started to hit the exits early.
Evansville connected on 56.6 percent of its shots from the floor and guard D.J. Balentine erupted for 35 points to knock Louisiana-Lafayette’s men’s basketball team out of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament with an 89-82 win.
“We knew they were very good offensively, we knew Balentine was very good, and they put on a show,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “We can’t give up 57 percent from the floor and shoot 41 and expect to win a basketball game.”
The Aces (22-12), who advanced to the tournament semifinals with the win, needed a strong shooting night, as the Cajuns (22-14) connected on 28 of their 34 free throw attempts.
“They’re from Indiana, guys,” Marlin said. “They walked in here and saw this building and they thought of ‘Hoosiers.’ They shot the cover off the ball and we couldn’t stop them.”
Evansville used its hot shooting to pull away in the final five minutes of regulation, starting with a fast break off an ill-advised cross court pass by Cajuns point guard Jay Wright.
“We had key turnovers down the stretch, and we didn’t get stops,” Marlin said.
That bucket sparked a 10-3 run, culminating in a Balentine 3-pointer that gave the Aces a 10-point lead with 1:51 to go. The Cajuns made a couple tough shots to make a game of it, but never got closer than six points in the final two minutes.
Junior forward Shawn Long led the Cajuns with 24 points and 11 rebounds, closing out what may be his final season with his 52nd double-double of his career.
Long scored 18 points and snagged nine rebounds in the second half, when he said he started to attack the rim more instead of relying on his perimeter game.
“The last few games, I think my mistakes have been playing the perimeter too much,” Long said. “Going into this game, I was focusing on the inside.”
A 16-5 run over the final 6:25 of the first half was enough to give the Aces a 44-37 lead at halftime, but much of the first 20 minutes was spent with the two teams trading big buckets.
The lead changed hands 11 times in the first 15 minutes, and the biggest lead either team was able to muster in that stretch was six points.
Marlin knew his team would face a difficult challenge in Balentine, who entered the game averaging 19.5 points, and Balentine lived up to his reputation.
Balentine connected on 6-of-9 shot attempts — including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc — for a game-high 17 first-half points. He led an Evansville attack that shot 60 percent from the floor in the first half.
“He’s a great player, there’s no question,” Marlin said. “He’s the leading scorer in the league two years in a row (in the Missouri Valley Conference), and he played like it tonight.”
Those 17 points matched the scoring output of the Cajuns’ entire starting five in the first half. Wright and Long, two of the Cajuns more consistent scorers, only combined for six first-half points.
The big reason the Cajuns were able to hang in there was the scoring contribution of its bench in the first half.
Devonta Walker, Kasey Shepherd and Steven Wronkoski combined to score 20 first-half points off the Cajuns bench, with Walker scoring a team-high nine points. Walker finished the game with 13 points.
The Cajuns weren’t able to continue their season, but Marlin was happy with the way his team closed out the season, winning nine of its final 11 games.
“I’m not going to let this game define what we did,” Marlin said. “We’ve had a good season. I think we’ve achieved and done what we needed to do. Moving forward, we wanted to play in the NCAA tournament — it didn’t happen, but it’s tough to get there.
“I feel good about where we are moving forward.”