From the Bird’s Nest: Road trip–Mobile
Trips to South Alabama are, more often than not, up and back trips. Drive over, do the game and drive back. But with a daytime tipoff, it was an overnight trip. The good news would be getting home before 2am.
The Senior Bowl was Saturday and the players were staying at the same hotel as the Cajun men and women. That made for a pretty festive atmosphere. Sitting outside Saturday night, we heard sirens and a police escort. Figured it was the players coming back. But actually it was the officials.
Finally, a game where the officials needed a police escort out of the place.
Riding in elevators later that night, there were always a few players or their supporters riding as well. The supporters were all dressed in the colors of their favorite players schools and that meant lots of different colors in the hotel. One of the good things about all star games is everyone is happy at the end. Quite a festive night.
Sunday, I got to the arena at halftime of the women's game. They had stayed at the same hotel and I got a chance to visit with Coach Errol Rogers. I joked with him and asked him if he was one of the officials in the Senior Bowl. (Rogers is a high school official and was on the field for one of the state championship games at the Superdome.) It was a close game at the half, but South Alabama broke the game open by hitting a total of eleven three pointers and pulled away from the Cajuns in the last eleven minutes.
About an hour before tipoff of the men's game I went to the locker room to record pregame with Coach Marlin. Despite the team's struggles this year, Coach has been pretty even keel during pre and postgame interviews. I told him it had been a calendar year since the Cajuns had won on the road and he suggested that maybe we'd have a chance to celebrate the anniversary after the game.
It was not "Saturday Night in the Sun Belt." And, that was a good thing. Since it was Sunday, more experienced officials were available for the game and since the game was on television, the Sun Belt sent a good crew to Mobile. Gotta put that best foot forward, you know.
And, after watching Saturday games with upward of fifty and sixty foul calls and more than seventy free throws on a regular basis, it was so refreshing to see a college basketball game decided by the players. Of course, coaches are never going to be happy. Both coaches complained about fouls NOT being called and were rewarded with technical fouls for their efforts. A third technical was called when South Alabama's Gary Redus jawed with Louisiana's David Perez. The two were teammates at Centenary a couple of years ago. Perez buried the two free throws and had a wry smile when he came back down court.
The game was tied at 33 at halftime, not bad considering the Cajuns were turning the ball over too many times. And, the Cajuns turned it over early and often in the second half and South Alabama took advantage to take a six point lead early in the second stanza.
But this Cajuns team battled. Freshman J. J. Thomas and senior LaRyan Gary carried the load offensively and kept the Cajuns in the game. And, senior Travis Bureau did his best Dwayne Mitchell imitation, skying high for rebound after rebound. The Cajuns finally got their first lead of the second half with about a minute and a half to go. And, with the score tied with 18 seconds left, the Cajuns had a chance to win it in regulation. A poor inbounds pass resulted in the ball being saved into the backcourt and the 1800 fans in attendance screamed in protest when Randall Daigle ran down the ball and no violation was called. The officials got it right, since possession had never been established. Wonder if a Saturday night crew would have gotten that one right. J. J. Thomas got a good look, but the game went into overtime.
The overtime belonged to Louisiana. Thomas continued his offensive assault, Raymone Andrews scored his only four points of the game, including two clutch free throws. Bureau reached the 20 rebound mark and Gary hit two big free throws with nine second left for the clincher, 76-70. The Cajuns wound up the game with 20 turnovers, but none in the final twelve minutes of play. And, they held South Alabama to under 30 percent shooting in the final 25 minutes.
There are some pretty good freshmen in this league, including South Alabama's Augustine Rubit, who averages a double double. Rubit, because of his numbers, is probably the favorite, at least right now, to be the SBC Freshman of the Year. But I wouldn't trade him for Thomas, who is simply becoming a star in this league. He had another double double on Sunday, with a career high 28 points. (I had him for 26 and Bureau for 10, but the official box score had 28 for Thomas and eight for Bureau. I'm thinking the gold tending basket that the Cajuns got was credited to Thomas.)
I remarked to Coach Marlin after the game that when you have a game officiated like the one on Sunday (hallelujah!), the team with the most men wins. And he had some men out there on Sunday afternoon.
But there is no man in this league who is more of a man than LaRyan Gary. Every time I see Gary on the court, I get more and more amazed. This kid plays on one leg and on Sunday he gave the Cajuns 36 minutes. He scored the ball, he rebounded, he defended. He had another monster blocked shot at a crucial time in the game.
LaRyan Gary has become my favorite Cajun player. Ever. He dives on the floor after loose balls. He leads this team, vocally and by example. He plays every game like it might be his last one, because it might. But he plays knowing that when the last game comes, he'll leave with no regrets. I love me some LaRyan.
Coach Marlin came out for postgame. We were in a commercial break and when he got to the table he said "Happy Anniversary." He didn't bring flowers or anything, however. No candy, either. Marlin was obviously happy with the win, his first road win as the Cajuns' coach. My guess is he was most pleased with the way the Cajuns defended in the final 25 minutes. Defense and rebounding won the game for Louisiana on Sunday.
Bob Marlin likes defense and rebounding.
The Cajuns have now won four straight and more importantly, showed themselves, each other and the fans that they can win on the road. This team is starting to play with confidence. They are running their offense with more sureness and it's paying off. They still aren't a great defensive team and they have games like Sunday where turnovers threaten to seriously penalize them.
But unlike earlier in the season, they're starting to show toughness in the final five minutes of games. Their last three wins, they've been the better team when the game was on the line. That's something we didn't see earlier in the season.
Driving home after a road game is never easy. But after a road win, the drive always seems a little shorter. In this case, it wasn't. The rain started shortly after leaving Mobile and it turned into a deluge from Gauthier (east of Biloxi) until around Mandeville. That meant driving about 45 miles per hour at times on the Interstate.
I didn't get home until nearly 11:30, but still had some adrenaline. And, after nineteen seasons on the radio and 27 seasons counting TV games, one thing remains constant.
There's nothing more fun than winning on the road.