LAFAYETTE — In terms of the standings, Saturday’s regular-season finale between the Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia Southern men’s basketball teams didn’t mean anything.
But the teams didn’t play like that was the case in a back-and-forth and sometimes emotionally heated 87-78 Cajuns win.
Coach Bob Marlin said he didn’t want to tell his Ragin’ Cajuns (16-13, 12-8 Sun Belt) about the fact that Saturday’s game wouldn’t have an impact on the standings, not after his team had dropped five of its previous six.
“We didn’t tell (the players), because we were concerned about us and how we played,” Marlin said. “We wanted to play well. We made no mention of it, and as a coaching staff we said, ‘Hey, we’re going to come out and play this team (in the conference tournament) next Friday.’ That is a strong possibility.”
With the regular season concluded, the Cajuns will be the No. 4 seed in next week’s Sun Belt tournament — but they knew that before they stepped onto the court Saturday.
It was possible going into Saturday that the Cajuns could drop as low as fifth, but that scenario was undone when Appalachian State beat Arkansas State earlier in the day. UT-Arlington’s win against Troy locked the Cajuns into the No. 3 seed.
Though their future was already determined, the Cajuns played like a team trying to right the ship after losing five of its previous six games. It was a hard-fought game up until the end, when the Cajuns started to pull away. A Hayward Register 3-pointer sparked a 22-12 Cajuns run over the final seven minutes, but the largest lead any team built in the first 37 minutes was seven points.
Kasey Shepherd scored a team-high 20 points for the Cajuns on 5-of-11 shooting, with 14 of those points coming in the second half. Shepherd had been in a funk lately, hitting just one of his past 15 attempts from beyond the arc coming into Saturday, but he hit three of the Cajuns’ eight triples against Georgia Southern.
“This was a big weight off our shoulders, especially for me, coming out Thursday I didn’t shoot that well,” Shepherd said. “Not that you ever lose confidence, but it always helps to see it go in.”
The Cajuns had to overcome big nights from Georgia Southern’s Tookie Brown and Mike Hughes, who combined to score 48 of the Eagles’ 78 points. Brown scored a game-high 25 points, and he scored 20 points while knocking down 8 of 11 shots.
Six seniors played their final game in the Cajundome on Saturday, and they were recognized in a ceremony before the game. The Cajuns’ entire starting five was composed of seniors, including Devonta Walker, who hadn’t started a game since Dec. 9 against McNeese State.
The start might have been to honor Walker in his final game on his home court, but it was Walker’s play that kept him on the court for the majority of the first half.
Walker was a force. He attacked the lane, scoring a team-high 13 points in the first half, which is more than he had scored in the previous six entire games combined.
He also was phenomenal on the glass, pulling down five rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends to give the Maryland native a double-double in 17 minutes of first-half action. His previous double-double came in the season opener.
Walker finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds.
“Senior day,” Walker said. “I just wanted to have fun, my last time coming here.”
Walker was great, and the Cajuns needed him to be. Senior forward Shawn Long picked up a personal foul with 12:29 to go in the half, then was hit with a technical foul after letting the referee know what he thought about the call.
Marlin also was hit with a technical foul during that sequence and had to be restrained near center court as he argued, and Georgia Southern’s Jake Allsmiller knocked down all four free throws.
Long went to the bench after his technical foul and stayed there for most of the rest of the half. He played only 10 minutes in the first half and did not attempt a shot.
Long turned it on in the second half and wrapped up his Cajuns home career with an 11-point, nine-rebound effort.
Long, Walker, Shepherd and Steve Wronkoski, four of the Cajuns’ five senior starters, combined for 53 points, 33 rebounds and nine assists.
The Cajuns will play their first conference tournament game at 5 p.m. Friday in New Orleans. They will face the winner of Thursday’s matchup between Georgia Southern and South Alabama.
“In my opinion, there’s four teams that can win it, and I think we’re one of them,” Marlin said. “If we would’ve shot the ball well, we would’ve been the one or two seed. … It’s still our goal; it’s still in front of us. We can still win this tournament.”