It’s not a rivalry again…..yet
Since Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns joined the Sun Belt Conference in the 1991-92 season, the two teams with the most Sun Belt Tournament titles are Louisiana and Western Kentucky.
And there have been memorable games between the two over the years.
In fact, the first one was a classic, won at the Cajundome by Michael Allen’s 30-footer as time expired. The Lexington native who was not recruited by the Hilltoppers, turned to the Western bench and fired imaginary six shooters at the Toppers’ bench as the ball went through the net.
In 1993, Western Kentucky won the tournament and went to the Sweet 16. But there were memorable games between the two teams again. At the Cajundome, Darnell Mee stole an inbounds pass with three seconds left, drove to the basket and dunked the ball. He jumped up and down as time expired and was ready for overtime. Except the Toppers were down by three at the time. Ten days later, Western got a huge measure of revenge, hammering the Cajuns at Diddle Arena 121-92.
In 1994, the Toppers got the Cajuns twice during the regular season. But the Cajuns got their revenge in the Conference Tournament at Diddle Arena, of all places, by spanking WKU 78-72 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close.
The Cajuns faced a major rebuilding project in 1995, while WKU was on their way to a first round win in the NCAA tournament. The Toppers got three wins over the Cajuns that year. In 1996, Louisiana and WKU split two regular season matchups, but the Cajuns hit 15 three pointers in the SBC tournament quarterfinals in a 98-94 win.
Then WKU hit the skids. They beat the Cajuns twice during the regular season in 1997, but neither team was very good as South Alabama rose to the top of the Sun Belt. WKU basketball was at its lowest point in 1998 as the Cajuns won both games on their way to an SBC tournament finals appearance. (South Alabama repeated as champions.)
Dennis Felton became the Toppers coach for the 1998-99 season. The Cajuns won both regular season meetings in Jessie Evans’ only losing season as head coach. But Felton got revenge in the SBC quarterfinals in Lafayette and WKU went all the way to the championship game before losing to Arkansas State.
In 1999-2000, the rivalry got, as Emeril Lagasse would say, kicked up a notch. Or six.
The Cajuns were clearly the better team that year. Felton was still rebuilding the Toppers’ program. On January 29, 2000, the Cajuns went to Diddle and beat Western 88-77. After the game, the Cajuns went down on a knee at midcourt as they always did. Then they got up, all put their hands high in the middle and jumped up and down, as they always did.
To say that Felton and the fans at Diddle were insulted would be to understate. Felton used “they danced on our court” as a rallying cry the rest of his career in Bowling Green. Fans referred to the Cajuns as “thugs” and even threw a couple of racial slurs at them as they went to the bus. The Cajuns also won the rematch at the Dome three weeks later 72-64. It was the last time Felton would lose to the Cajuns. It was also the last time the teams would play home and home in the same season. In 2001, the Cajuns lost at Diddle 79-62 and then lost to them again in Mobile 82-75 in a a game not decided until a Nashon McPherson three pointer with 40 seconds left. In 2002, , again at Diddle, WKU won again, 63-62 when an Anthony Johnson fifteen footer hit the back of the rim at the buzzer. At the conference tournament in New Orleans, WKU’s Chris Marcus outdueled freshman Michael Southall in a 76-70 tournament finals victory.
The two teams met in Lafayette in 2003 before a national tv audience and a crowd of over 9000 at the Cajundome. This time it was Patrick Sparks who broke the Cajuns’ hearts with a clutch three point basket that carried WKU to a 69-66 win. That made it five in a row for Felton over the Cajuns.
In 2004 the Cajuns survived 40 points from Anthony Winchester and outgunned the Hilltoppers 110-102. It was the Cajuns’ first win in Bowling Green since they “danced” back in 2000. After the handshakes, the Cajuns again went to mid court. It was “watter bottle night” at Diddle and the fans responding by throwing the bottles at the Cajuns players. But after going down on one knee for a prayer, the Cajuns simply walked to the locker room. The following season, the Cajuns beat Western again, this time in the Cajundome, 91-76 on their way to their second consective championship. That was the night that first-year coach Robert Lee began the tradition of singing the fight song with the students after every Cajuns home win.
Then the Cajuns program slipped and the Toppers won six straight, including a tournament semifinal win in 2006. During that time, the Cajuns and Toppers played at the Dome only once, with Western taking a 69-66 win behind the league’s best player, Courtney Lee.
Between 2001 and 2010, the teams met in the regular season ten times…..with seven of the ten being played at Diddle Arena, a major cause of consternation among Cajun fans.
This year’s game featured two teams that were by no means great. Despite being picked to win the East, WKU came in at 13-13, 7-6 in the Sun Belt. The Cajuns were 11-14, but 8-5 in the Sun Belt. Both teams were playing well. The Cajuns had won eight in a row, the Toppers eight of their last ten. A raucous crowd of over 7000 were in attendance, partly because of the winning streak, partly because of a special promotion and partly because it was Western Kentucky in town.
After having to play away from home for seven of the last ten years, Cajuns fans wanted to make sure the Toppers actually existed.
The game atmosphere reminded me of some of those past Hilltoppers-Cajuns games when so much was at stake. Both teams played hard. Both coaches coached hard. Topper coaches were incensed when they thought the shot clock should have expired on a Josh Brown basket with four minutes left. They might have a point, but screaming obcentities at the official scorer (who happens to be female) wasn’t exactly the way to handle the situation. Besides, the official scorer doesn’t start the clock.
The Cajuns and their fans, meanwhile, were equally incensed at what they felt were inconsistent calls from one end of the court to the other. They, too, might have a point. Cajuns coach Bob Marlin thought so and received a technical foul for his protests.
At the end of the day, the Cajuns got their ninth straight win. And, at the end, everyone shook hands.
But although these probably aren’t the two best teams in the league, Western Kentucky and Louisiana got after each other. And, there’s a good chance that as each team gets back to playing for championships, both programs will remember Saturday night’s game as the one that kick-started the WKU-UL rivalry back to its rightful place as one of the most intense in the Sun Belt.
We’ll find out more when the two teams play again. That could be in the upcoming Sun Belt tournament. Or the two teams might have to wait until 2011-12 when they play again during the regular season.
At Diddle Arena. In Bowling Green. Again.