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 the conference tournament.
But, oh, the opportunity that was wasted by the UL Ragin’ Cajuns in Saturday’s 86-79 loss to Georgia Southern because of too many sloppy stretches.
“Definitely, it was,” junior guard Cedric Russell said, “because every game is important. We’re fighting for seeding. We go on the road next week to two teams that we’re fighting for seeding for, so every game is important. We definitely needed this one, but we can’t dwell on it — just flush it and move forward.”
Much of it had to do with fatigue. The Cajuns only played six players in Thursday’s upset win over Georgia State.
With reserve guard Calvin Temple out with a quad and Trajan Wesley still out with a concussion and neck injury, the backcourt is severely shorthanded.
That forced Russell to play 40 minutes when he’s really supposed to be on a minute restriction following his foot injury.
Russell led the Cajuns (10-15, 5-9) with 23 points, but he missed two one-and-ones down the stretch and was short on a pair of 3-pointers.
As a team, the Cajuns missed seven of their 20 attempts at the line after making 19 of 20 Thursday.
“Nah, it’s no excuse,” Russell insisted. “I was kind of like on a (minute) limit restriction, but I had to do what I had to do for my team tonight. I missed some key free throws — the front end of some 1-on-1s at the end. It just happens.”
After a Tirus Smith basket inside gave the Cajuns a 74-67 lead with 6:27 left to play, Georgia Southern responded with a 9-0 run to take a 76-74 lead.
“We’re up by seven points and we made some mental mistakes,” UL assistant coach Neil Hardin said, “and then I don’t think we had the legs to finish it out.”
Hardin also pointed out that Georgia Southern’s up-tempo style made it even tougher on UL.
“The way Georgia Southern plays (hurt, too),” Hardin said. “They’re running guys in and out, but also pushing the pace constantly. That plays against us down the stretch.”
Hardin represented the coaching staff because head coach Bob Marlin was ejected six minutes into the game after a pair of technical fouls.
“I’ve been with coach Marlin for a long time so it’s not anything to get all flustered about,” Hardin said. “It’s an unfortunate situation that happened. You have to roll with it right away and make sure the team knows we’re still in it to win it and stay positive.”
Russell said the team rallied together at that point.
“He (Marlin) didn’t get thrown out for his health,” Russell said. “He got thrown out for fighting for us. We definitely wanted to go out and fight for him and come together and do what he would want us to do if he was there.
“It definitely brought us closer together. I felt like we battled and came closer together. I feel like we grew tonight even though we didn’t come out with the ‘W.’ ”
Their hearts might have been willing, but their legs weren’t.
Far too often, sloppy execution led to easy baskets for the visiting Eagles.
Thanks to 15 turnovers, Georgia Southern outscored UL 21-10 off turnovers, resulting in a huge 31-9 edge over the Cajuns in fast-break points.
“No question,” Hardin said. “That’s what we talked about right after the game. We cost ourselves. Georgia Southern took the ball quite a few times.
“They’re good at shooting the gaps and creating offense with their defense. We gave them too many. That’s ultimately what cost us the game. We played good enough to win outside of too many pick-sixes that led directly to buckets.”
Joining Russell in double figures on the night were P.J. Hardy with 16 and Jalen Johnson with 14.
With the loss, the Cajuns are tied with Troy for the final conference tournament spot at 5-9.
Then there are three teams right ahead of them with eight losses.
“We’re disappointed but at the end of the day, you have six games left,” Hardin said. “You still have time to move up in the seedings.”