It wasn’t the formula for success that UL’s basketball squad had anticipated, but nobody on the Ragin’ Cajuns bench is complaining now that the losing streak is ended, the Cajuns have a Sun Belt Conference victory and they’re going on their longest road trip of the season with some renewed confidence.
All it took was five double-figure scoring performances, a better shooting touch, the continued improvement from some new faces and the much-needed emergence of a point guard option for the Cajuns to roll past Troy 79-62 on Saturday for their first league win.
They’ll immediately turn around for an imposing road swing that begins Monday night against a solid Appalachian State squad. Before UL (6-9, 1-3) returns home, it will also face Georgia State on Thursday and Georgia Southern on Saturday, with the three teams a combined 9-3 in Sun Belt play.
It didn’t give much time to celebrate a Saturday home win that snapped a six-game losing streak, but the Cajuns and coach Bob Marlin know how important that victory was.
“We really needed this one bad, desperately,” said junior guard Cedric Russell, who hit four 3-pointers on his way to 15 points against the Trojans. “A lot was lifted off of us, and now it’s time for us to start a streak.”
Marlin moved within one victory of fourth place on the all-time Sun Belt victory list.
“It’s easy when things don’t go well to drop your head,” Marlin said. “Our guys are picking each other up. We had several guys in double figures, and our leading scorer didn’t score tonight, so it was an impressive job by our guys and I’m proud of the way they hung together and made it work.”
The Cajuns trailed Troy by 42-37 at halftime Saturday before getting a second-half spark from an expected source and an unexpected source. Freshman Mylik Wilson had a career-high for the second straight game and his first double-double effort with 18 points and 13 boards to go with five assists and three steals.
“Mylik stuffed the stat sheet again,” Marlin said. “He’s upping his game and playing with confidence, and he’s showing a little bit of emotion. I love the fact that he keeps his cards close to the vest and doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but yet he has the last couple of games. He got excited, and it’s good to see him do that.”
But it was another freshman, little-used guard Calvin Temple, who may have had a more important impact. Pressed into service by the rash of injuries that has now sidelined five starters or featured players, Temple finished with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting with two assists, and had nine second-half points in spurring UL to outscore Troy 42-20 after halftime.
Temple, who had been averaging only eight minutes per game and had 23 points all season, stepped in Saturday for sophomore guard Trajan Wesley, who suffered an apparent concussion on a fall in Thursday’s loss to South Alabama and will likely not make this week’s extended road trip.
“He hit a couple of big shots late and he made free throws,” Marlin said, “but he can score and rebound on the defensive end. He came up with three rebounds, and they were key for us.”
“It was his first time to start a college game,” Russell said, “and we needed him. We needed every bucket he gave us. Every time we had a dead-ball situation I tried to talk to him and let him know that this is what you do, you play basketball, this is just another game, you go out and make plays, make shots, that’s all we need you to do.”
UL post players Tirus Smith and Dou Gueye combined for 31 points and 12 boards, with Gueye hitting a pair of 3-pointers and Smith getting two blocks and drawing three charging fouls from the aggressive Trojans. That duo helped UL out-rebound Troy 42-27.
“That was a big emphasis coming in,” Smith said. “The main focus in practice, getting on the glass and making sure we had three guys offensive boarding and five on the defensive end.”
Appalachian State (9-6, 3-1) handed Georgia Southern its first league loss Saturday when Justin Forrest hit a step-back 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds left for a 74-72 victory. The Mountaineers trailed by double digits at halftime and were down by three with 41 seconds left before Forrest had two more of his game-high 25 points. He ranks third in the Sun Belt in scoring (18.2), but App State’s forté is defense, holding opponents to a league-leading 63.8 points per game.
“They’re very good, and they’re very good at home,” Marlin said. “But we’ve gotten better. It was important for us to get that one Saturday because we’re going on the road and we need to keep playing well. If we do that we’re going to win some games and we can sneak back in this thing a little bit.”