From the Bird’s Nest: Finding a way
When we have a home game, Coach Bob Marlin and I usually get together in his office around six to record his pregame segment. We don't spend a lot of time chatting, since we both have work to do before the game begins. But I remarked to him that, for the first time this season, I was a little tight. If the Cajuns were going to dare to become part of the conversation in the Sun Belt Western Division, losing to Arkansas-Little Rock was not an option. He agreed it was a big game.
During their four game winning streak, the Cajuns formula for winning had been pretty consistent: Execute the offense, shoot a high percentage from the field and win the rebounding battle. Turnovers and defense had been a bit of an issue, even during the winning streak, with exception of the second half and overtime against South Alabama, when the Cajuns shut down the Jags' offense. They also did a good job valuing the basketball during the last fifteen minutes of that game.
UALR came into the game second in the nation in three point percentage. They had hit 11-17 in their overtime win over Denver on Thursday. In conference play, they were shooting an incredible 48 percent from beyond the arc, four percentage points better than their total field goal percentage in SBC play.
Saturday night, the Cajuns won again. But this time, they did it a different way.
Louisiana shot less than 40 percent in each half. They barely shot 30 percent after halftime. They were outscored in the paint. They were outscored in points off turnovers. Their bench was outscored 21-9. They only had a four point advantage in second chance points.
The Cajuns got the 67-66 win because of a disparity at the free throw line (30-38 vs. 18-21...more on that later) but more importantly, they left the floor winners because they guarded their butts off.
Bob Marlin's been waiting for that performance.
UALR's five guards, Solomon Bozeman, Alex Garcia-Mendoza, D"Andre Williams, Chuck Guy and Matt Mouzy were a combined 9-34 from the field (26%). They were 2-13 from three point range. Bozeman, who shoots 60 percent from beyond the arc in conference play, didn't even attempt a three pointer. (Bozeman, to his credit, drove, got to the free throw line and made 15-17 to keep UALR in the game.) Guy, a prime candidate for Freshman of the Year honors, was 1-6, scored three points and did not have an assist. He scored 20 against the Cajuns in Little Rock. The Cajuns defense forced the Trojans to play a lot of one on one basketball, They had a grand total of two assists to go with 14 turnovers. UALR came into the game with a 1:1 assist/turnover ratio.
The Cajuns shot free throws extremely well. They were 30-38....that's 77%. Travis Bureau, who had played the best three game stretch of his career, hit 13-17, despite having only made 57% of his free throws on the season. The rest of the team was 17-21. Bureau's two freebies with :00.6 left in the game were clutch, to say the least. He said after the game he was nervous. I was nervous when the first one danced all around the rim before falling. That was the big one. He calmly made the second and the Cajuns' streak was intact.
The Cajuns' streak has moved them into a tie for third place in the Sun Belt Conference West Divison. They currently sit two games behind Denver and a game and a half behind Arkansas State. The top two teams in each division get a first round bye.
With six games remaining, it's still too early to talk about that, however. A tough road trip against an improved Florida International squad is followed by a visit to league-leading Florida Atlantic. If the Cajuns can garner a split on this trip, they'll still be in the conversation, especially with ASU and Denver still having to make a trip to the Dome on the next home stand.
When the Cajuns were 3-14, 1-5, I really didn't think I'd be writing this blog. But this team is playing well enough now that I'm actually doing some scoreboard watching.
Who woulda thunk it??