LAS VEGAS — UL’s basketball team saw first-hand Tuesday how inconsistent a young squad can be in the span of 24 hours.
The Ragin’ Cajuns, coming off one of their best performances of the young season Monday in their first on-site game in the MGM Resorts Main Event, struggled early and late in falling to Cal-Irvine 92-67 in their final appearance in the tournament.
The Cajuns (4-3) trailed 10-0 and were down by as many as 16 points by the 10:45 mark on Collin Welp’s 3-pointer, before rallying to cut the margin to 40-33 at halftime. UL then got the difference down to three points early in the final half before the reigning Big West Conference champions exploded down the stretch.
“I told the guys before the game that (the Anteaters) are going to punch us first and we have to make sure that we’re ready,” said UL coach Bob Marlin. “We weren’t ready; we couldn’t stop them early.
“We got right back in the game, even in the second half it’s 56-50 and we’re in good shape, but we couldn’t do it. They were too strong inside, they pounded it inside and just had their way with us.”
UL continued its roller-coaster of a road trip in which it missed more than half its free throws in an overtime loss at Wyoming before an impressive 81-62 victory over Detroit Mercy (which had defeated UC Irvine on Sunday by double digits) on Monday night. In that victory, the Cajuns shot well, had a double-figure rebound advantage and played solid defense.
They did none of those Tuesday, especially after the 15:38 mark of the second half when P.J. Hardy hit a 3-pointer that pulled UL within 48-45. However, the Anteaters (4-4) scored six straight points over the next 45 seconds, and after a brief Cajuns rally that again made it a six-point game at 56-50, UCI turned the final 11 minutes into a fast-break drill in outscoring the Cajuns 36-17 over that stretch.
In the second half, the Anteaters hit 70 percent from the field on 19 of 27 shots, hitting 12 of their last 14 attempts, while the Cajuns didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:26 and missed their last seven shots and nine of their last 10.
“It’s like it had a lid on it,” said Marlin, whose team shot 31 percent from the floor (20-64) one night after a 51.3% second-half shooting performance in Monday’s win. “We’re missing some point-blank shots, but we were off balance and we got knocked down and knocked around some. But they (Irvine) do a good job walling up. They have a lot of size and that’s the way they want to play, and they made sure they came out in the second half and played the way they want to play.
“That’s a team that’s older. They won 31 games last year, and they quit complaining about the officiating and started playing basketball.”
Tommy Rutherford had 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting and Brad Greene added 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and the two 250-pound-plus Irvine postmen also helped the Anteaters outrebound the Cajuns 43-23. UCI had six players in double figures, with Welp adding 15 including three 3-pointers, Eyassu Worku getting 13, John Edgar 12 and Austin Johnson 10.
P.J. Hardy, who missed UL’s first four games with a team suspension and did not play until this three-game road trip, had 18 points including 4 of 8 3-pointers to lead the Cajuns. In all, UL finished a respectable 10 of 23 from outside the 3-point arc, but were only 10 of 41 inside, and Irvine had a dominating 48-14 advantage in points inside the paint. It didn’t help that junior guard Cedric Russell, who came in averaging 16 points a game, was held scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting.
Marlin said he was more disappointed in his team losing in the open-court game.
“What really hurt us was transition,” he said. “We got beat in the transition game 30-6 in the way we keep it on the bench, and it wasn’t even close. That needs to be flipped for us to be successful. We need to score in the open court and we didn’t get any of that today.”
One bright spot was sophomore point guard Trajan Wesley, who missed UL’s first two games with an ankle injury. He had 11 points and six assists and for the second straight game had zero turnovers in over 30 court minutes.
“Trajan played well on the trip,” Marlin said. “He’s growing up a little as a player now that he’s healthy with his foot.”
The Cajuns will hope to do some growing up of their own during an open week. They don’t return to action until Tuesday when they host Southeastern Louisiana in a 7 p.m. contest at the Cajundome.
“We have to get better,” Marlin said. “Certainly our post defense has to improve, but they were so big at times today we couldn’t catch up to them. Our perimeter defense, we gave up an awful percentage from the floor, and that and our shot selection has to get better. We had poor shot selection and took bad shots, and that usually leads to transition baskets for the other team.”