Louisiana 88, Denver 69

Sun Belt Conference Tournament Finals

The Super Pit, Denton, Texas

March 8, 2005

It had been a tumultuous off season for Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns basketball team.

Jessie Evans, after leading the Cajuns to the 2004 Sun Belt Tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament, decided to take his heart to San Francisco.

After a nationwide search, then-Louisiana athletics director Nelson Schexnayder decided to hire Glynn Cyprien as Evans' replacement.

That lasted about two and a half months.

It was discovered Cyprien did not have a degree from an accredited university.  After wiping the egg off their collective face, the job was given to assistant coach Robert Lee, who had been one of the finalists in the first place.

Lee inherited some good players from the team that lost to North Carolina State in the NCAA's first round.  But the Cajuns also lost some important pieces from a deep basketball team.  Second team All-Sun Belt performer Laurie Bridges was gone, as were sharpshooters Brad Boyd and Antoine Landry.  But a good nucleus returned, including forward Brian Hamilton, guards Orien Greene and Dwayne Mitchell and center Chris Cameron.

In addition, Lee welcomed guard Tiras Wade, who had transferred from East Tennessee State and had sat out the previous season.

Lee really didn't have a lot of time to recruit during the transition and would not have a deep bench.  Junior College transfer Spencer Ford would be the sixth man and the Cajuns would also get some help from another JUCO, Anthony Rhodman.  Sophomores Adam James and Ross Mouton would provide some minutes as well.  But, the first five were going to be expected to carry the bulk of the minutes.

The Cajuns were co-favorites in the western division of the league, along with the Denver Pioneers.  Terry Carroll's club had the league's best big man in Yemi Nicholson, who came to Denver on a music scholarship.  Erik Benzel was the last recruit brought in by former Pioneers' and Ragin' Cajuns' coach Marty Fletcher.  Benzel was a senior who redshirted during Fletcher's final season.  And, Carroll had Rodney Billups, brother of Chauncey, to run the point.

The Cajuns started slowly, to be expected, considering they had three coaches in a span of four months in the off-season.  But, just as it looked as though the Cajuns were starting to get some rhythm, they suffered a huge blow while facing #2 Kansas at the Allen Fieldhouse.

Orien Greene, the Cajuns' point guard and best defensive player, took a knee to the lower leg and did not return for a month.  The Cajuns managed to go 3-3 in his absence.

But the final one of  those losses was in the conference opener against Denver at the Cajundome.  In that game, Nicholson scored 22 points and Benzel added 11.  But it was Billups who stole the show, with 13 points and twelve assists, most of them on dribble penetration to Nicholson as Denver left the 'Dome with a 72=66 win.

It was, and still is, the only time Denver has ever won at the Cajundome.

Greene returned for the next game at South Alabama, and the Cajuns promptly went on an eight game winning streak, all in league action, including a 91-76 pasting of Western Kentucky, which began the tradition of singing the fight song with the student section after the game.

The Cajuns took that winning streak to Denver, but came up short at Magness Arena, 79-72.  This time Nicholson had 28 points and eleven boards.  Benzel added 22, including six three point baskets and Billups again was the catalyst, with twelve points and a remarkable fifteen assists.  And, although there were still games to be played, the Cajuns would up finishing second in the west to the Pioneers.

The Sun Belt Conference Tournament was held at the Super Pit in Denton, Texas.  The Cajuns had Friday off for the first round.  Denver played on Saturday, beating Arkansas State and East champion UALR was upset by FIU.  The Cajuns took care of Middle Tennessee in the Sunday quarterfinal and dispatched FIU in the semis.  Denver beat Western Kentucky in the other semifinal, setting up a third meeting between the Pioneers and Cajuns.

For the final, the Cajuns were making an adjustment.  Dwayne Mitchell, who guarded Billups in the first two meetings, was going to move over to guard Benzel.  Greene, who was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, would get the assignment on Billups.  Lee was convinced Billups was the one who had to be stopped and thought Greene could be the difference in the game.

Upon arriving at the Super Pit, I visited with my good friend, Mitch Hyder, the play-by-play voice of the Pioneers.  We talked about the first two meetings and the matchup in the finals.  I didn't tell him about the defensive switch that was planned.  Hyder mentioned he had never done a game in the NCAA Tournament.  I told him the game might come down to the last possession.  But deep down I felt it would be the Cajuns' night.

The first half mostly belonged to the Pioneers.  After the Cajuns' scored the games first four points, Denver went on a 9-0 run to open a lead that was as big as seven points in the first half.  But the Cajuns hung tough and actually took a one point lead at the four minute mark before heading to the locker room tied at 32.

As I walked toward the door to take a break during halftime, Mitch said to me "looks like you might be right."  He was talking about my prediction that the game might come down to the final shot.

I looked at the first half statistics and that's when I knew it would be the Cajuns' night.  At the half, Rodney Billups had more turnovers (3) than assists (2).  Lee's plan of having Greene guard Billups was paying off.  Billups had scored some baskets and I was sure Greene was being challenged at halftime to work against Billups even harder.

A three pointer by Chris Cameron and a layup by Brian Hamilton gave the Cajuns a five point lead.  They never trailed again.

Billups didn't get his first basket until 11:29 remained.  By that time, the Cajuns had built an eleven point lead.

Billups finally got his first assist of the second half with 5:16 left.  The Cajuns led by ten at the time.

Billups had one more basket, and no assists the rest of the way.  He did, however, turn it over twice more.

Louisiana outscored Denver 18-6 in the final five minutes and Mitchell put the exclamation point with a thunderous dunk in the final minute.

Tiras Wade, voted the tournament's most outstanding player, had 30 points.  Mitchell added 16.  Hamilton chipped in twelve.

Orien Greene had a double-double with 14 points and eleven rebounds.  He also had six steals, five of them against Billups.  Louisiana shot 62% in the second half.

Nicholson, who had scored 28 in the previous meeting, was held to 14.  Benzel, guarded by Mitchell, only took seven shots.

Rodney Billups took the most shots for Denver, with 15.  He had three assists after getting 15 in the previous meeting in Denver.  He turned the ball over five times.  The Cajuns held a 21-3 advantage in points off turnovers, and 24-8 in second chance points.

Louisiana was headed to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.  It had been more than twenty years since that had happened.

As for my friend Mitch Hyder...he still hasn't called a game in the NCAA tournament.  Usually when I talk to him I tell him Orien Greene sends his regards.