Johnathan Stove’s most vivid memory of his last trip to Monroe is running toward the baseline of ULM’s Fant-Ewing Coliseum, near his UL-Lafayette teammates’ bench, laughing while he was being chased by a red-shirted mini-mob.
“I didn’t know what to do,” the Baton Rouge native said after his 50-foot shot at the horn capped an improbable comeback and gave the Ragin’ Cajuns an unlikely 85-84 win over the host Warhawks. “Then Jay Wright jumped on my back and I fell, and that’s when everyone else came running up my back.”
Stove and his teammates had reason to celebrate that win, the second of what has become a school-record 15-game win streak against Sun Belt Conference competition. The Cajuns trailed by double figures in the final five minutes, were still down by seven with less than a minute left, and appeared destined for a loss when they trailed by five with 12 seconds to go after ULM’s Jordan Harris hit a transition layup for an 84-79 advantage.
“We never thought we were going to lose,” said Stove, who had 13 of his 17 points in the second half of that game. “They missed a couple of free throws, and we hit some tough shots. We made all the plays we needed to.”
By itself, that dagger of a loss gives the Warhawks (9-11, 3-6) plenty of impetus going into Saturday’s 2 p.m. rematch at Fant-Ewing, but the teams’ earlier meeting this year piled on the motivation. ULM came to the Cajundome on Jan. 13 and went home victims of a thorough 82-48 thrashing, with the Cajuns (19-3, 9-0) leading by 42 points with five minutes left and giving ULM by far its worst loss of the season.
“We’re going to Monroe’s Super Bowl,” said Cajuns coach Bob Marlin, whose team holds a two-game lead in the Sun Belt standings. “With us coming in unbeaten, it’s the biggest game of the year for them. It’s always a tough place to play, and then we sort of had our way with them down here, so I expect a really tough game up there.”
Stove said the Warhawks basically said so immediately after the Jan. 13 contest.
“Yeah, Jordan Harris told us in the handshake line that we’ll see y’all in a couple of weeks,” Stove said. “That already put in my mind what type of game it’s going to be. We don’t expect to blow them out or anything. It’s going to be a dogfight until the clock hits zero.”
Stove can relate to the zeros on the ULM scoreboard after last year. Despite 3-pointers by Wright, P. J. Hardy and Kadavion Evans in the final three minutes, UL-Lafayette still trailed 82-77 with 27 seconds left.
Wright, the only senior on last year’s Cajuns, drove for a twisting layup and the last of his game-high 28 points four seconds later, but Wright got free in transition against UL-Lafayette’s press for a layup that put the Warhawks in front 84-79 with 0:12 showing.
Jerekius Davis missed a 3-point attempt moments later, but Evans tipped it in and was fouled, adding the free throw to make it 84-82 with four seconds left. Hardy then fouled ULM’s Roderick Taylor before the inbounds pass; Taylor missed the first free throw before ULM called a timeout.
“Jay Wright kept saying to go foul him, and I’ve got four fouls,” Stove said. “I said send P.J. in there, he’s only got one, and P.J. did a great job and got the quick foul.
“We knew when he (Taylor) missed the first one and people were screaming at him, we’re thinking he’s going to miss the second one,” Stove said. “His confidence is killed right then.”
Sure enough, Taylor missed the second, and Davis’ rebound and outlet pass went to Stove when the planned play to Wright was snuffed by ULM defenders. Stove took three dribbles and launched a shot from near the scorer’s table at the mid-court line, finding the net on what was only his eighth 3-pointer of the season.
Since then, the Cajuns haven’t lost a regular-season Sun Belt game. They’ve also won 16 straight games against Louisiana competition dating to 2015, and they hold the nation’s 10th-longest win streak and the ninth-best winning percentage entering the 75th meeting between UL-Lafayette and ULM.
But UL-Lafayette has also lost on three of its past four trips to Monroe, and only Stove’s miracle heave kept that from being a four-game losing streak. ULM is also on a roll of its own, having won back-to-back Sun Belt games against Troy and South Alabama last week for its first conference win streak in two years.
“We needed something good to happen,” said ULM coach Keith Richard. “We needed to win bad. We know we’re going to be a huge underdog, and we’ve got to look at all our options against these guys (UL-Lafayette) because what everyone else in our league is doing isn’t working.”
Stove scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half in last Saturday’s 81-69 win over Troy. That snapped a three-game run in which Stove had only 14 total points.
“I got my confidence back,” he said. “I struggled against South Alabama (a 76-57 win last week) really bad; I got two charges, picked up fouls, I had five turnovers that game. I just needed something to get my confidence back, and that game did it. My teammates kept telling me they needed me to play big in order for us to win.”