UL-Lafayette’s men’s basketball team will fight the cliché of how difficult it is to beat a team three times in one season Friday in its Sun Belt Conference tournament opener.
The Ragin’ Cajuns will also have a secret weapon when they take on Texas State in Friday’s 11:30 a.m. quarterfinal at Lakefront Arena.
Well, maybe not so secret, seeing as junior JaKeenan Gant was named the Sun Belt’s defensive player of the year and newcomer of the year earlier this week.
Even though Frank Bartley’s scoring and Bryce Washington’s rebounding and all-around play have garnered much of the attention this season — and put that pair on the All-Sun Belt first team — it was Gant who blocked seven Texas State shots during the Cajuns’ two wins over the Bobcats this season.
Six of those blocks were converted directly into baskets on the other end. Gant led the league with 72 blocks; only two Cajuns have ever had more in a season.
“Those are huge for us,” said Cajuns coach Bob Marlin, whose 26-5 team had an opening-round bye as the tournament’s No. 1 seed. “Those are momentum-changing plays. That’s something we chart. We try to get eight momentum-changing plays in a game, and JaKeenan’s gotten a lot of those for us.”
Gant had three blocks, and his inside presence forced several more misses the first time UL-Lafayette and Texas State met back on Jan. 20 in San Marcos. The host Bobcats hit only 7 of 32 shots (21.9 percent) in the first half, while the Cajuns jumped to a 32-20 lead and led by as many as 29 points in an 80-55 win. Texas State finished at 32.2 percent from the field and made only 3 of 13 3-pointers.
The Bobcats were better in mid-February in Lafayette, but still hit only 8 of 27 in the first half and UL-Lafayette led by double digits for most of what became a 73-63 win. Gant had four blocks in that game and the Cajuns outscored TSU 47-20 in the paint.
“They’re a tough matchup for us since there’s going to be so many fewer possessions,” Marlin said. “They’ll try to keep the number of possessions down, kind of like Little Rock did.”
UL-Lafayette will be trying to wash away the disappointment of that stunning 72-61 overtime loss to Little Rock in last Saturday’s season finale, when they were hit with only their second Sun Belt loss and had a senior night celebration spoiled with their first home loss in more than a year. The 12th-seeded Trojans already have bid the Sun Belt Tournament adieu, having been rolled 93-64 by Appalachian State in Wednesday’s first round.
“It probably wasn’t good that we played the bottom team after we had it wrapped up,” said Marlin, referring to the Cajuns already assured of the regular-season title with one week remaining. “It was a perfect storm for Little Rock as far as what happened in the game. We played poorly, and a lot of individual performances were off.”
Saturday night was the Cajuns’ turn for offensive troubles. UL-Lafayette hit only 32.8 percent from the floor, its lowest in 18 conference games and its second-lowest of the season. The Cajuns didn't shoot less than 40 percent in any other Sun Belt game.
The Cajuns were also an anemic 6 of 31 from 3-point range, also the second-lowest of the season, and the Sun Belt’s best free-throw shooting team was 9 of 17 in Saturday’s second half.
The high point in Saturday’s game? Gant, who blocked a season-high seven shots while sharing scoring honors with Bartley with 17 points.
“We obviously have to play better,” Marlin said. “I think the way we played was a good lesson for us, and that lesson would have been learned either way. It’ll help refocus us.”
The Cajuns have one big question mark in senior swingman Johnathan Stove, who suffered a high ankle sprain in last Thursday’s 85-74 home win over Arkansas State. Stove, who went over the 1,000-point career mark earlier this year, played only four minutes in a token senior role in Saturday’s loss.
“We didn’t drive the ball against Little Rock and take advantage,” Marlin said, “and one of the best we have doing that is Johnathan. He was probably 75 percent by Monday, and hopefully he’ll be ready to go Friday.”
Texas State entered the tournament as a No. 9 seed and on a nine-game losing streak, but snapped that Wednesday with a 73-66 win over No. 8 seed Coastal Carolina. The Bobcats held a 14-point lead at the 10-minute mark but went over seven minutes without a basket, missing six shots and turning the ball over three times in that stretch, but made 18 of 21 second-half free throws to advance to the quarterfinals.