Louisiana 51, South Alabama 50

Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship

Alltel Arena, North Little Rock, AR

March 7, 2000

As the 1999-2000 season drew to a close, NIKE unveiled a series of commercials with the theme "Bracketville," a very well done takeoff on the movie "Pleasantville."  The slogan was "Bracketville...stay as long as you can."  It featured well known coaches, including Jim Calhoun and Pat Summitt, picking NIKE shoes off trees and bringing them to "check out" farmer's market style.

Bracketville wound up being a buzzword that season, and probably spawned the overused "bracketology," that we constantly hear now near NCAA tournament time.

The goal was to make it to Bracketville, one of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament.

In the Sun Belt Conference, there was room for only one Bracketville resident.  And, three teams had a realistic chance of being THE one.

The newly-named Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns were one of those teams, tying South Alabama for the league title with a 13-3 record.  Louisiana Tech was just a game behind at 12-4.  The Cajuns looked to be in control of the league, but back to back road losses at Tech (80-75) and South Alabama (71-58) relegated the Cajuns to a c0-championship and the #2 seed in the tournament.

The reason they were seeded second?  They just couldn't beat South Alabama.

And, that had been going on for awhile.  The Jaguars defeated the Cajuns at the 'Dome to win the 1998 tournament in coach Jessie Evans' first year.  Bob Weltlich, a Bobby Knight disciple, was the coach of the Jaguars.  And, what made things especially galling was that Evans had been an assistant under Weltlich at Texas.

The 1999-2000 Cajuns were a very good club.  Led by juniors Blane Harmon and Lonnie Thomas, plus sharpshooting guard Orlando Butler off the bench, the Cajuns began the season 6-5 against a very tough schedule including an appearance in the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico.   Then Louisiana reeled off ten straight wins to go to 16-5 on the year and 7-0 in league play before losing.

To South Alabama.  At the Cajundome before 7,007 fans, 69-65.

The Cajuns then went on another streak, winning five straight before the two straight losses to Tech and USA.  They then won at UNO to tie for the season title.  Their 22-8 overall record was Evans' best.

The conference tournament was being hosted for the third time by Arkansas-Little Rock.  But this time it was in the beautiful new Alltel Arena, just over the bridge in North Little Rock.  The Cajuns had a rematch with New Orleans in the quarterfinal round and play in the first half set basketball back 15 years.  The Cajuns shot just 15% in the first half but still led UNO 13-12 at halftime before blowing out the Privateers 55-35 to set up a semifinal showdown with Louisiana Tech.

Tech won 21 games that year.  Coached by now-ULM coach Keith Richard and led by guard Gerard Henderson, Tech was a dangerous club.  But Evans' squad was able to take Henderson out of the game, took a 12 point lead at halftime and let the Bulldogs get no closer than eight in the second half.  The 73-58 win set up another showdown in the championship game.

Against South Alabama.

Under Weltlich, the Jaguars were known as a very physical team that really locked down defensively.  Virgil Stanescu was the big guy in the middle.  Ravonte Dantzler was a solid shooter and Demetrice Williams was one of the league's best point guards.  But the Cajuns could be physical as well.  Brett Smith could battle Stanescu inside, Billy Jones was the team's best defender and both Lonnie Thomas and Reggie DeGray could mix it up as well.

The Cajuns' achilles heel in a tight game would be there free throw shooting.  This was one of the poorest free throw shooting teams in recent history, as the Cajuns as a team shot just 61%.  Only Butler, who came off the bench, would be considered reliable from the charity stripe.  In fact, in the two losses to USA, the Cajuns were a combined 20-41 from the line.

South Alabama jumped out early as Stanescu scored  six of South Alabama's first eleven points.  The Jaguars led by as many as eight, 19-11, with seven minutes left in the first half.  But the Cajuns roared back with an 9-0 run to take a 20-19 lead with 4:28 left.  The teams traded baskets the rest of the half and went into the locker room tied at 24.

Although the game was tied, it was being played at South Alabama's pace.  The Cajuns were outrebounded by seven.  They shot just 3-11 from the free throw line.  What was keeping them in the game was their defense, holding the Jaguars to 35% shooting in the first half.

And, as expected, it was physical.  Point guard Demetrice Williams collided with an oak tree named Brett Smith with seven minutes left in the first half and crumpled to the floor.  He was shaky the rest of the night, going scoreless.  In the second half, Butler would wind up underneath the 6-10, 270 lb. Stanescu and had to go to the bench for awhile.

The heavyweights of the Sun Belt went toe-to-toe in the second half.  The Cajuns jumped out to an early five point lead, 31-26, but that margin lasted all of eight seconds as Dusty Dubbs made a three pointer to bring the Jaguars within two, 31-29 at the 16:28 mark.  After a Smith free throw, Josh Hotz tied it with a three pointer with 14:03 left.

Although no team would lead by more than four points the rest of the way, it seemed the Cajuns were always playing catch-up.  The Cajuns would never lead by more than one point and that only happened a couple of times.  But the Jaguars could never get the basket they needed to get some distance.

The Cajuns took a 45-44 lead on a Blane Harmon jumper with 5:02 to go, but Dantzler answered a minute later to give the Jags the lead once again.  Erickson Beck hit two free throws to give south Alabama a three point lead with 3:11 left.  Butler made a free throw, but Dubbs scored on a layup and South Alabama had a four point lead and Jessie Evans called time out with 1:23 left.

One minute and twenty-three seconds.  That can be an eternity in college basketball.  But in a game where possessions were at a premium, it wasn't a lot of time at all.  There wouldn't be much of a margin for error.

Smith drew a foul with 1:05 left.  The Aussie, just a 39% free throw shooter, managed to make one to cut the lead to three.

Now it would take a defensive stop.  And, in a game dictated by defense, the Cajuns made a huge play by drawing a shot clock violation to regain possession.  Harmon quickly sliced through the defense for a layup to make it 50-49.

Weltlich called time out with :15 left.  The shot clock was off and Weltlich wanted to make sure the ball was in the hands of a good free throw shooter.  After the inbounds pass was successful, Harmon immediately fouled Erickson Beck with :13 left.

Despite the physicality of the game, it was only the ninth team foul on Louisiana.  Beck, who was 2-2 from the line stepped up.

And missed.

There was a chance.

Thomas got the rebound and got the outlet pass to Harmon.

One of the toughest decisions a coach has to make in that situation is whether or not to call time out.  Evans didn't want to give South Alabama a chance to grind in the half court and elected to keep the time out in his pocket.  Butler streaked to the three point line.  Harmon dribbled to the left of the key and went up, intending to take an 18 footer.

But he saw Thomas had gotten behind his defender and threw a perfect pass.  The Cajun forward turned around and banked it home with 3.2 seconds left to give the Cajuns the lead.

The Cajuns bench exploded as Weltlich called time out.  And, the Cajuns mobbed Thomas as they came to the bench.  But Evans was quick to remind the team the game wasn't over.  Thomas nodded and said "we know."

After the time out, South Alabama ran a screen to get a player open at mid court and called another time out with 2.2 left.

But the Cajuns made it difficult for South Alabama to inbound the ball.  They finally managed to get it to Dantzler, but he forced an 18 footer in double coverage and it didn't come close as the buzzer sounded.

The bench ran out onto the court to celebrate as Evans calmly walked over and shook Weltlich's hand.  For the first time in his career, he would take a team of his own into the post-season.  The Cajuns won despite hitting only 10-23 free throws.  They were outrebounded by five and had three more turnovers than South Alabama.  But the team held USA to 33.9 percent shooting for the game, and that was the difference.

We came out of a commercial break and the celebration was still going on.  The teams had returned to their benches as the league got ready to hand out the trophy and all-tournament awards.  Thomas turned to Don Allen and me, broadcasting right near the Cajuns' bench.

"We're going to first street in Bracketville, baby!!!"

(NCAA Box Score and information from UL Media relations contributed to this story.)