There were a lot of reasons not to expect the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns to upset the Georgia State Panthers late Friday night at the Cajundome.
Coach Bob Marlin’s club was riding a three-game losing streak entering the game, being outscored by an average of 20.3 points in those three games.
The series hadn’t gone very well for the Cajuns of late either. Georgia State was enjoying a six-game winning streak over the Cajuns prior to tip-off Friday and obviously had plans of making it seven consecutive wins as they walked into the arena.
It’s not very often a team enjoys a 21-0 run in a game and loses.
From a more technical side, the Cajuns’ defense is the worst 3-point shooting unit in the Sun Belt and the visiting Panthers are among the most deadly in the league at knocking those shots down beyond the arc.
But there was one overriding intangible — make that two perhaps — that many fretting UL’s pregame chances might have overlooked.
Simply put, the Cajuns don’t like Georgia State, which certainly returns the favor as often as possible.
The Cajuns' athletic department no longer enjoys the good old-fashioned rivalries of yesteryear, but the UL-Georgia State men’s basketball hatred is real and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
And also, this business of playing in a nationally-televised ESPN2 broadcast gave the Cajuns a little extra boost.
The result was a hard-fought 76-72 win over Georgia State — one that provided both a huge relief after a humbling stretch for the defending regular-season Sun Belt champions and very satisfying notch in their belt.
“This is a game established way before we were here and it’s still going to be a rivalry when we’re gone,” said UL sophomore guard Cedric Russell, who had 14 points behind four 3-pointers to help the Cajuns win that battle 10-6 over the perimeter-heavy Panthers. “It’s definitely an important game.
“It’s understood. When it’s Georgia State vs. Louisiana, it’s go time.”
Russell later fittingly likened the rivalry to a boxing match.
“It’s like Tyson vs. Holyfield. It’s like that,” he said.
Typically, the opening weekend of a new season just can’t come quickly enough for coaches, players and fans.
Junior forward Justin Miller also didn’t hide from the significance of the rivalry.
“We don’t like them and they don’t like us,” said Miller, who contributed eight points and a game-high 13 rebounds to help UL win the battle on the boards as well 32-28.
“It’s been well overdue with them.”
This particular rivalry is somewhat unique in that the two coaches are in the center of it. It’s more than just between the fans and schools.
“Every time we play them,” Miller explained, "it really means something to both coaching staffs. It’s going to be like that every single time we play them.”
In perhaps the funniest part of Friday’s jovial postgame press conference, Miller was asked if the two head coaches — UL’s Marlin and Georgia State’s Ron Hunter — could be any more different.
“Man, for real,” Miller chuckled. “For real.”
That lingering bitterness that began in 2014 when the Panthers swept the Cajuns in the regular season only for UL to win 82-81 in overtime in the Sun Belt Tournament finals, as well as playing on national TV, kept the Cajuns going through some iffy moments in Friday’s big win.
“Coach (UL assistant Kevin) Johnson said before the game to play for the name on your back because you’re always going to owe someone that came before you,” Miller said. “So we wanted to play for each other’s families tonight, because everybody was watching us play.”
A year ago, UL-Lafayette softball coach Gerry Glasco entered his first season saddled with more question marks than the Ragin' Cajuns had in m…
That genuine dip into the motivation pool was extra important after 41-26 Cajun lead with 29 seconds left in the first half was incredibly transformed into a 47-41 Georgia State lead at the 14:24 mark of the second half with a 21-0 run … somehow in a loss for the visiting Panthers.
“We’ve been having a lot of adversity lately,” Miller said. “We just wanted to come out here for the fans and for the coaches and just get back to our ways. We just wanted to do it for our coaches.
“They’ve been working so hard to get the game plans and we’ve been out there not playing to our ability. I feel like we came out today and hit some walls, but we bounced back.”
The Cajuns (now 14-10, 5-6) also overcame team leader JaKeenan Gant fouling out with 1:30 left of a two-point game after scoring a game-high 23 points with five rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
By the time I showed up on the scene at Louisiana-Lafayette's Tigue Moore Field, it was only four years removed from the big game.
The victory in front of a lively crowd of 4,814 left UL in eighth place in the Sun Belt standings, instead of dropping to ninth with seven league games left.
Remember, that’s important because the opening round of the Sun Belt Tournament this season consists of two on-campus matches with No. 7 hosting No. 10 and No. 8 hosting No. 9.
On the flip side, there’s also that juicy little note that the hated Panthers would have been in sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt race had they won Friday.
Don’t expect the Cajuns to shed any tears over that disappointment.