For the first time since UL’s hoop season had its stunning turnaround, foul trouble reared its ugly head Sunday evening in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, and suddenly what had been a charmed six weeks ended in a flash.
Freshman-turned-emotional leader J.J. Thomas picked up personal fouls seemingly every time he moved against Western Kentucky Sunday, going scoreless in the first half and finishing with only two points before fouling out with over seven minutes left. Thomas, who only played 14 minutes, departed during a 14-0 Hilltopper run midway through the second half that boosted WKU to an 81-76 win.
Certainly, the Cajuns have other inspirational leaders. La’Ryan Gary, still playing on one leg, had 17 points and five rebounds in his final college game. Travis Bureau hit 7-of-11 shots for 16 points along with three blocks in his college finale. And another freshman, Josh Brown had one of his best games of the year with a team-high 19 points and 14 boards – eight on the offensive glass.
But the Cajuns needed all of their weapons against a WKU team picked to win the Sun Belt’s East Division. They had that three weeks ago when they knocked off the Hilltoppers 67-64 at the Cajundome, a game when Thomas had 25 points.
“We changed matchups from that game,” said WKU coach Ken McDonald. “They [UL] were very aggressive at home, and he [Thomas] got into a rhythm early. Tonight we started with Steffphon Pettigrew on him, and we played a lot of help-side defense and stayed in front of him.”
WKU also got help from an officiating crew that penalized the Cajuns’ forte’ and negated their aggressive defense – the opposite of what normally happens in tournament play. Front-liners Bureau, Gary and Scottie Farrington finished with four fouls each. Meanwhile, the ’Topper big men – Pettigrew, Sergio Kerusch and Juan Pattillo – combined for 65 points and 24 rebounds, and only eight fouls between them.
But despite Thomas’ virtual absence, UL still led 39-36 at the half and led by four points shortly after halftime. But Thomas’ fourth and fifth fouls came during a 22-7 WKU spurt.
“J.J.’s a big part of our team,” Gary said. “When any of our players foul out, there’s a big change because we need everyone to work as a team.”
The Cajuns didn’t have that on Sunday, and just like that the co-champs of the West Division were done and the nation’s second-hottest basketball team had its 11-game win streak snapped.
“We have had quite a run,” said Cajun coach Bob Marlin, who should have been handed the league’s Coach of the Year plaque pregame. “Tonight we had the chance to get that [the streak] to 12, but we fell short. We didn’t make plays down the stretch. We had one period in the second half where we didn’t make the plays.
“We dodged some bullets throughout that streak, but we didn’t tonight.”
Instead of Marlin, the league coaches and media voters selected Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis as Coach of the Year – despite FAU losing to UL on the Owls’ home floor and struggling down the stretch. Jarvis got his plaque pregame … and then watched his team collapse in losing by 14 points to North Texas (a team seeded two slots below the Cajuns) in the Owls’ tournament opener Sunday.
That wasn’t any consolation to the Cajuns, but Marlin and his troops had little to apologize for.
“I am very proud of them,” Marlin said. “We did a great job for our university and our Cajun fans.”
Representing is something that the UL team should be proud of. It’s gone almost unnoticed, but the Cajuns are much more a home-grown team than anyone else in the Sun Belt, or in Louisiana. Where most teams in the league struggle to field in-state starters, the Cajuns started five Louisiana players in the Sun Belt Tournament – and they had seven more available to play. Except for Bryant Mbamalu from Houston (three hours away) and Farrington’s Bahamas home, the entire Cajun roster hails from the state.
No one else in the league is even close to that. Western Kentucky, for example, has two players on its entire roster from Kentucky. Florida International, ironically, has more roster players from Louisiana (two) than it has from Florida (one).
Using local products is only part of it, of course, but the last six weeks have shown Cajun fans that Marlin and his staff are going to build the UL program the right way. Going from 3-14 to break-even entering the league tournament was just one example. Successful seasons are going to be the rule rather than the exception in short order, and one can only hope that those looking back in a few years will see this season as one of those successes and remember that there was a lot more to this year than a 14-15 won-loss record.