The Sun Belt Conference championship is all but assured with two weeks remaining in the regular season, but UL-Lafayette’s basketball team and coaching staff isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We know we have to get up and play everybody the same,” said senior guard Johnathan Stove, who has scored double figures off the bench in each of the Ragin’ Cajuns past seven games. “We know that every night, if you don’t bring the energy it’s going to be a tough game for us, because we’re getting everybody’s best game.”
The opposition hasn’t mattered much for the Cajuns (23-4, 13-1 Sun Belt), who make a Thursday-Saturday Alabama swing at Troy and South Alabama this week. Those are the Cajuns' final road games; they close out the regular season with home games against Arkansas State and Little Rock in the first week of March.
If the Cajuns continue as they have, those final two games might be only to solidify this year’s team in the school record book. UL-Lafayette can lock up a share of the league title with one win in any of the four remaining games, and any combination of two wins or Georgia State losses will give them the outright title, the No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament on March 7-11 and a guarantee of no worse than an NIT berth.
Coach Bob Marlin knows that if his team wins at Troy and Georgia State (10-4) loses at Texas State, the league race will be over by the time the Cajuns get back to their Troy, Alabama, hotel room. Even if the Cajuns go winless in their last four games and Georgia State wins all four, UL-Lafayette is already guaranteed a bye in the league tournament.
But Marlin emphasized Monday at his weekly press luncheon that there are no guarantees.
“For us, the most important game is always the next game,” Marlin said. “That’s the way these guys have operated all season. That’s our goal for every game, so we’re always motivated and we’re not concerned with what others are doing. For the most part we’ve been successful doing our thing.”
That was apparent Saturday night, when the Cajuns built a 16-point halftime lead and led by as many as 29 with 12 minutes remaining in a 100-79 win over preseason league favorite Texas-Arlington. That 13th double-digit win in 14 Sun Belt games came despite point guard Marcus Stroman playing only 14 minutes with foul trouble, the team hitting only 45 percent from the floor in the first half and Bryce Washington and Malik Marquetti combining for only seven points.
But three of the Cajuns’ five players in double digits came off the bench, and UL-Lafayette outscored UTA 48-14 in bench points.
“We’re confident in all our guys,” said Stove, who had 14 points and is averaging 17.8 over his past four games. “Malik moved over and did a good job at the point, and when Cedric (Russell) came in we’ve got five scorers on the floor and it was hard for them to defend.”
Russell got off to the best start of his freshman season, hitting 4 of 6 outside the arc for 12 points. Senior Frank Bartley also had four 3-pointers as part of UL-Lafayette’s 14, two off the school record of 16 the Cajuns set earlier this year against Savannah State.
“We had a great energy performance from Cedric,” Marlin said. “That really gave us a boost. Frank — we talk a lot about Johnathan and Bryce because they’ve been here for four years — but Frank has done a fantastic job of leading. He lets his actions speak for his leadership, he’s shot it well, he’s been very efficient and played good defense.”
Bartley said there was a method to the team's hot shooting — the Cajuns made nine 3-pointers in the first half.
“Marcus penetrated a lot for us early,” he said. “That opened it up a lot, and I know I had a lot of confidence in my shot. (UTA) had played with more energy earlier when we played them, so we wanted to be the team that was aggressive this time.”