The stretch drive is officially here in the Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball race.
It’s been a long, rugged road for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns thus far this season.
When your record is a disappointing 10-16 overall and 5-10 in league play and are tied for 10th place with five games to go, anything resembling a positive sign is a welcomed relief.
On the surface, Thursday’s heartbreaking 78-75 loss at South Alabama wasn’t one of them.
It was another night of frustrating setbacks for the UL men's and women's basketball teams in Sun Belt play Thursday.
It was an even game the Cajuns certainly could have won with a 66-61 lead with 3:49 left and still a 71-69 lead with 37 seconds left.
The one good break is Troy, which hosts UL at 6 p.m. Saturday, and Coastal Carolina both lost, which keeps the Cajuns tied for that last SBC tournament qualifying spot and only one game behind the Chanticleers for the ninth spot.
The Cajuns beat Troy 79-62 on Jan. 4, so a sweep over the Trojans would give UL a potential tiebreaker over them down the road.
Coastal Carolina, meanwhile, only plays UL once and that’s the last game of the regular season in Lafayette.
But inside of Thursday’s loss were a few other hidden gems.
For instance, point guard Trajan Wesley returned to action for the first time in six weeks. The sophomore didn’t score or record any other significant statistics in nine minutes on the court, but it was potentially a start for the staff to have more options in the backcourt.
The UL Ragin’ Cajuns will begin a stretch of four out of next five games on the road, making the charge at a Sun Belt tournament spot even tougher.
Also, reserve freshman guard Calvin Temple only played a minute, but that still means he’s now available after pulling a quad muscle two weeks ago.
Even less obvious is the fact the Cajuns’ play somehow seems to be steady.
On paper, the best guess for this team after missing so many games from top contributors and the rotation reduced to six at times in recent weeks is it’ll hit a wall and start unraveling.
So far, anyway, that hasn’t happened. And if Wesley and Temple can get junior scoring leaders Cedric Russell and Jalen Johnson a little more rest, perhaps playing strong until the finish line is possible.
“Most definitely,” Russell said. “I hate that it had to take all of this to get there, but most definitely. Guys are really leaning toward each other versus at first it was kind of like everyone was new so everybody was hesitant.
“Now everybody’s out of their self and into the team and really buying into what the coaches want. At the end of the day, that’s the main goal to get better as a unit and to make a really big push next year.”
Some weekly news conferences are about filling the blanks after a game, while others tend to be about delivering a message.
Whether it was the short breather or not — Russell got six minutes off Thursday — he produced a 29-point performance on 7-of-13 shooting from 3-point land.
The problem was Russell was the only Cajun to shoot over 50 percent from the field and only P.J. Hardy made another 3-pointer at all in the team’s 10-of-30 performance from 3-point land.
In the big picture, the Cajuns have now lost three of their past four, but all of those setbacks were by single digits. UL’s last double-digit loss was 81-65 to UT Arlington on Jan. 16.
On the flip side, Troy has now lost five of its past six games and the only loss that wasn’t double figures in that stretch was Thursday’s 74-71 loss to last-place UL-Monroe.
Of course, none of those potentially positive signs will mean anything if the team hits a wall anytime in the next week or so.
Until that happens, at least there’s still a shred of hope for a productive finish.
Splitting a weekend against two teams in the top four spots in the Sun Belt race isn’t normally a bad thing when you’re fighting for a spot in…