Ragin’ Cajuns overwhelm Arkansas State _lowres

Advocate Photo by BRAD KEMP -- Louisiana-Lafayette forward Shawn Long and the Cajuns try to keep their run to the Sun Belt Conference tournament going against UALR on Thursday.

LAFAYETTE — There is plenty riding on Thursday’s men’s basketball game between the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Arkansas-Little Rock.

Once almost out of the Sun Belt Conference race, Arkansas-Little Rock (13-16, 8-11) has won five of its past seven games and can clinch a spot in the conference tournament with a win Thursday. It is the Trojans’ last game of the regular season, and if they lose, they’ll have to sweat out Saturday’s outcomes to learn their fate.

“This could be their last basketball game of the year, and we’ll get their best shot,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said.

The Cajuns (17-12, 11-7) have won four straight and are looking to solidify their place in the Sun Belt Conference standings to maintain a first-round bye in the tournament. UT-Arlington, who plays Georgia Southern on the road Thursday, could still catch the Cajuns in the standings.

“We’ve still got some work to do to hang on to this fourth seed,” Marlin said. “We’re going to get a great game on Thursday from Arkansas-Little Rock.”

The last time the teams met was in the SBC opener, when the Cajuns survived a second-half Trojans surge to win 83-79 in overtime. Forward Shawn Long scored a game-high 23 points in that game to go with 12 rebounds.

Marlin said he expects it to be just as challenging this time around, especially considering the Trojans’ season may depend on it.

“They’re going to come in here, and they’re going to guard us like they’ve not guarded anybody all year,” Marlin said.

Josh Hagins has spent most of the season coming off the bench, with only seven starts in 29 games, but he is leading the Trojans in scoring at 12.1 points per game. He needs 12 points Thursday to become the 20th player in UALR history to score 1,000 points in his career.

He’ll team with sophomore forward Mareik Isom, who was named the Sun Belt Player of the Week after averaging 15.5 points per game while connecting on nine of 11 3-point attempts in games against Georgia State and UT-Arlington.

The Trojans have come around offensively in their recent hot streak. After topping 70 points only four times during their 3-9 start to conference play, Arkansas-Little Rock has scored 70 or more in five of their past seven games and is averaging 73.7 in that stretch.

But the Trojans come into the game against a Cajuns team that has locked down the defensive end of the floor lately. The Cajuns have held each of their past three opponents to less than 35 percent from the floor, allowing just 56.7 points in those three games.

The Cajuns know their recent staunch defensive effort must continue if they want a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

“Right now we are gelling as well as we have (all) year,” senior guard Xavian Rimmer said. “At this point, we’re playing better defense from the beginning of the season. From the new players, from the young players, to us the veterans. Shawn Long’s even getting better on defense blocking shots, playing one-on-one defense in the interior.

“Overall, we’re playing good defense now, and that’s going to help us win the Sun Belt championship.”