From the Bird’s Nest: Home court advantage
If you follow the Sun Belt Conference, you just knew that Thursday night's game between Louisiana and Arkansas State was going to be one of those games.
It was a game featuring the two hottest teams in the Western Division of the Sun Belt. Louisiana had won seven straight, six of them in conference. Arkansas State had won four conference games in a row.
It was a game featuring two of the league's best coaches. Bob Marlin is working his magic with the Ragin' Cajuns. It's taken longer than anyone would have liked, but the Cajuns have run their offense well during the streak, have defended better than at any time during the season and have played with the mental toughness and confidence necessary to close out games. And, say whatever you want about John Brady. He may have had attrition problems at LSU and sometimes didn't get along with everyone, but don't ever make the mistake of suggesting that Brady couldn't coach. As an X's and O's man, he can get it done.
Thursday night's game was going to be a tough matchup for the Cajuns. ASU's three perimeter players are very good. They have a senior point guard in Rashad Allison, a very good scorer in Donald Boone and a solid all-around player in Trey Finn. And, their center, Martavius Adams, is an especially tough matchup inside. Visiting with Coach Marlin before the game, we both thought the rebounding battle would be key. ASU and UL are the league leaders in rebound margin.
When you have two teams playing well, it often comes down to home court advantage.
And the home court was a big part in the Cajuns' 64-61 win.
It has always been a tradition for Cajuns fans to stand until the Cajuns score their first points. But Bob Marlin wanted to change that. He wanted the fans to stand until the OPPONENT scores. He wants the Cajuns crowd to be loud. (And, by the way, he'd also like some rhythmic clapping as well.) Last night the fans, led by an incredible student section, did their part. The Cajuns held ASU without a field goal for over four minutes to start the game, allowing the Cajuns to build an early 10-2 lead. Arkansas State, not known for being turnover-prone, had composure problems early. And the fans can take credit for some of that as well.
The Cajuns, despite shooting only 34% in the first half, led by eleven, primarily because the Cajuns defense was nothing short of incredible. They held ASU to 18 points. Only six field goals and 28% shooting. ASU had nine turnovers without an assist in the first half. Only a good defensive showing, a Brady trademark, kept the game from being over at halftime.
But it wasn't over at halftime. And, ASU is too good a basketball team to take that kind of a beating. They roared out of the gate in the second half, hitting seven of their first nine shots. Allison, who had eight points at halftime, led the comeback for ASU. The Red Wolves scored 22 points in the first eight and a half minutes of the second half and wiped out the Cajuns lead. Arkansas State took a one point lead on two occasions in the second half. But a jumper by Josh Brown (his only field goal of the night) and a three pointer by La'Ryan Gary got the lead up to six. ASU held the Cajuns without a field goal in the last 5:28 and tied the game with 1:16 to go. But Raymone Andrews hit two free throws to put the Cajuns up by two with 45 seconds left.
Then the crowd helped the Cajuns win the game.
Allison went back to the line with under twenty seconds left. He was already five for five in the second half. But he was on the end where the students behind the ASU bench and behind the basket where he was shooting obviously distracted him enough to miss the first of two free throws. That made it a one point game instead of a tie. Randall Daigle hit two freebies to make it a three point game and Allison got a bucket after a missed three pointer. J. J. Thomas then hit two more free throws with under six seconds left for the final margin.
Arkansas State had one more chance, but Edward Townsell was called for a double dribble. I said on the air I didn't see a double dribble, but as it turns out, I was blocked by Townsell's body when he dribbled the ball with both hands to get control. I saw the dribble after that which looked clean. It was evidently the right call.
Speaking of right calls, Thursday night's game was absolutely the best officiated game I've seen in a very long time. I'm sure they missed a couple here and there, but Roger Ayers, Timothy Hall and Leslie Jones were consistent all night and called it the same on both ends. A total of 39 fouls called in the game. The Cajuns shot 27 free throws, ASU 24. And four of the Cajuns free throws came when ASU was trying to foul. By the way, the Cajuns were 15-15 from the line in the second half, 12-12 in the final four minutes.
After the game while waiting for Coach Marlin to come out of the locker room, I saw John Brady. He saw me and smiled, came over and we shook hands. "That was a great college basketball game," he told me and I agreed. He said "Boy, you guys are a lot better," as he headed over to Matt Stolz to do his postgame radio show. Afterwards, Matt told me that was as upbeat after a loss as he's seen Brady all year. Hey, sometimes you play pretty well and just don't win the game.
Especially if you've got 5300 rooting against you. And, those fans do make a difference.