UL-Lafayette’s march to March Madness is on.
The top-seeded Ragin Cajuns opened Sun Belt Conference tournament play by riding some torrid 3-point shooting by Frank Bartley, Cedric Russell and Justin Miller to an easy 80-54 quarterfinal victory against ninth-seeded Texas State on Friday at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
Bartley scored a game-high 23 points, while Miller, forward Jerekius Davis and guard Marcus Stroman contributed 14, 12 and 10 points, respectively, to help the Sun Belt regular-season champions defeat Texas State for the third time this season and rebound from a season-ending 72-61 loss to last-place Arkansas-Little Rock on senior day last Saturday.
The Cajuns play No. 4 Texas-Arlington at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in a semifinal streamed on ESPN3. Texas-Arlington (20-12, 10-8) defeated No. 5 Appalachian State 84-68 in Friday’s second quarterfinal.
UL-Lafayette swept the Mavericks during the regular season.
UL-Lafayette (27-5) hit 14 of 27 3-point attempts compared to a 3-of-14 effort by Texas State. Bartley hit 5 of 11 from 3-point range. Miller was 4 of 6 off the bench from 3-point range, and Russell was 3 of 4.
Stroman also distributed a game-high eight assists, and all-conference forward Bryce Washington from St. Augustine scored seven points and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds in his hometown.
But it was Miller and Russell’s hot shooting, with three first-half 3-pointers apiece, that sparked the winningest men’s basketball team in Cajuns history to a 37-15 halftime lead from which they were never threatened.
Texas State (15-18, 7-11) had only one player, guard Nijal Pearson, reach double figures with 14 points.
“We still shot the same shots," said Bartley, a 6-foot-3 senior all-conference selection from Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge. “I think our focus was there from the jump. Maybe the loss we had on senior night was the wake-up call we needed.
“I’d rather lose any game at home than lose in the first round of the (conference) tournament. So we came out hungry and everybody stepped up."
Of more immediate concern is the perception, if not expectation, that the Cajuns must win the SBC tournament to advance to their 10th NCAA tournament and first since 2014.
“We’re trying to win the basketball tournament," said UL-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin. “That’s all we’re focused on. We can’t control any (thing else).
“We’ve had the most wins in our school’s history. We’ve got a really good basketball team. Are we deserving? Certainly, I think so. But it’s not my call. We need to win this tournament. I think having this tournament (go) so late and being over on Sunday doesn’t help in (getting an at-large bid)."
Bartley also said the Cajuns need to focus on taking care of business.
"We want to win the tournament," Bartley said. "That’s our goal. We don’t want to leave it up to (ESPN’s Joe) Lunardi or anybody else who makes that decision. We have a chip on our shoulder. We didn’t win it last year. We want to win it this year. We’ve already won the regular-season championship. We want to win the tournament championship and create our own destiny."
Two more performances like Friday's in Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final seemingly would ensure that outcome.
"It would mean the world to me," Miller said. "All of my life I’ve wanted to get to the NCAA tournament and showcase my skills. I know all my teammates want to do the same and coach Marlin.
"I feel like we’ve worked really hard and have put in a lot of time and effort. This weekend is just a testimony of what we’ve been doing all season. I think we’re getting there, but we’re not there yet."
Texas State coach Danny Kaspar said he believes the Cajuns already have proven their mettle as a NCAA tournament team.
"We ran into a very good team, one of the better mid-major teams in the country," Kaspar said. “They are a very talented team. And they took it to us. After the first six or seven minutes it was all them.
"Coach Marlin has got them playing great defense, and they share the basketball very well. I see an unselfish team that seems to like one another. They seem to pull for one another. Again, their defense is very good.
"I would put my money on Lafayette if they were playing some of these at-large teams from the bigger conferences on a neutral floor. They deserve the opportunity to be in the NCAA."