As Thursday’s second half unfolded, the frustration level grew for the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team.
Now the Ragin’ Cajuns have to contend with the Sun Belt Conference’s other hottest team — and risk being swept on their Arkansas swing — when they face Arkansas State at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.
The Cajuns had what coach Bob Marlin referred to as a “Murphy’s Law” second half Thursday, falling at Little Rock 77-57 to end a three-game winning streak and leave the host Trojans at 13-1 overall and 3-0 in Sun Belt play.
The league’s other 3-0 squad? That would be ASU’s Red Wolves, who have won their past four games to crawl out of an early-season hole and even their record at 7-7. A-State knocked UL-Monroe from the ranks of the league unbeatens Thursday with a 68-65 overtime win after trailing by five at halftime and nine in the second half.
“They’re playing really well,” Marlin said of the Red Wolves, who didn’t qualify for last year’s Sun Belt tournament. “Coach (John) Brady’s got them playing together after a slow start, and they’ve shortened their bench a little bit and it’s helped them.”
That bench outscored ULM’s reserves 23-0 on Thursday when A-State scored the first nine points in overtime and held on for its 14th straight home win over the Warhawks. The Red Wolves swept road games at Troy and South Alabama last week to open Sun Belt play.
“There’s nothing better after a game than seeing that sense of accomplishment and how much it does from a confidence standpoint,” said Brady, who led LSU to the 2006 Final Four and who plans to resign from ASU after the season. “It would be great to get that one Saturday. ... We’ve got an opportunity to put ourselves in a good position, and hopefully we will be ready to play Saturday and get something done.”
The Cajuns (5-7, 1-2) may have their confidence shaken after Thursday, when they played a solid first half and watched things fall apart after halftime. UL-Lafayette was outscored 25-12 in the final 11 minutes, 8 seconds; missed all 11 of its 3-point attempts in the second half; and only forced six Little Rock turnovers all evening in its worst conference defeat in nearly three years.
“When things have gone in spurts in games, we haven’t been able to maintain and score when we really need to,” Marlin said of the preseason Sun Belt favorites. “When we started struggling to make shots, we couldn’t get it in to Shawn (Long) as much because they collapsed on him. From the seven-minute mark, it went downhill in a hurry.”
Long finished with his nation’s-leading 60th career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but the Cajuns finished Thursday on a 2-for-20 shooting skid and went 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) in the second half against the national leaders in scoring defense.
Long likely will pass two milestones in Saturday’s game. The senior from Morgan City now has 1,181 career rebounds; he’s two short of the Sun Belt record of 1,183 by South Alabama’s Augustine Rubit (2010-14). Long has 1,916 career points; he’ll tie Rubit for ninth in Sun Belt scoring history with his first point Saturday.
UL-Lafayette was within 49-45 with 12 minutes remaining even after an uncharacteristic nine first-half turnovers, a season high for one half. But after Jay Wright’s driving layup at 12:13, Little Rock held the Cajuns scoreless for nearly 41/2 minutes and without a field goal for more than 5 minutes.
“We just need to shoot the ball better,” Marlin said. “We outplayed Little Rock in the first half and our defense was good for a long time, but we didn’t rebound the ball for a stretch, and we gave up too many offensive rebounds.”
UL-Lafayette won at Little Rock and Jonesboro last year as part of its 22-win season. Now the Cajuns are trying to avoid losing both ends of the Arkansas trip for the first time since 2012-13. That was also the last season in which UL-Lafayette opened conference play 1-3.
“It’s a quick turnaround that we have to be prepared for,” Marlin said. “We’ll show up. ... We just need to make shots.”