From the Bird’s Nest: Road Trip–Monroe
A road trip to Monroe doesn't entail much.
Not because it's Monroe, but because, for me, it's not an overnight trip. Get in the car, drive to the game, do the game, drive home. No fancy restaurants. Gimme fast food, I'll eat on the fly.
Those trips to Monroe have gotten easier now that Highway 165 is four-laned all the way. Now, you still have to be very careful in places like Ball and Pollock, where you might see one of the town's finest waiting to cite you for driving too fast. But overall it's an easy drive, and since 165 now pretty much bypasses Columbia, you can actually make it in under three hours.
Got to Monroe earlier than planned and stopped by a drive thru for a late lunch. Most schools in the Belt have something for the media to eat prior to the game, but that doesn't happen at ULM. No big deal to me. Grabbed a burger and headed to the arena.
Got there just as starting lineups were being introduced for the women's game. Thought it was classy for ULM to honor the Cajuns' three seniors, Jasmine Barnes, D'Mya Clay and Lyndra Bell. Coach Mona Martin of ULM had a rose for each of them. Found out that they do that at Earl K. Long as well. Very nice gesture. Somehow I can't imagine Middle Tennessee's women honoring the Western Kentucky seniors, or vice versa.
Did all my pregame work and did my pregame interview with Coach Marlin. One thing I've learned about the first-year Cajuns coach is he's pretty much even keel every game when dealing with the media, myself included. We'll usually visit a minute or two off mic, but not for long since we both have work to do. But there was a lot riding on Saturday night's game. And frankly, it scared me some. ULM had just won on the road at North Texas, which means despite their abysmal record, they hadn't quit. They had all week to prepare. And, ULM tends to look at the Cajuns as more of a rival than the Cajuns' fans look at ULM. It was senior night. They had a lot of reasons to play well.
Coach Marlin and I finished our pregame interview with yet another little silly rhyme. I started it with "Strive for Five" and have had something different for each game. I had already used "heaven" when the Cajuns were looking for their seventh straight win so I had to come up with something else. I ended the interview with, "If you can go out and play your best, number eleven means you win the West." Very trite, but hey, the Cajuns are winning and you never mess with a winning streak.
A nice contingent of Cajuns fans made the trip north for the game. It wasn't the crowd that travelled to New Orleans back in the day, but it was certainly the biggest crowd I remember seeing for a game at Monroe or even Ruston. And because ULM was 7-22 coming into the game, there weren't that many local fans there, even though they were retiring the jersey of all-time great Glenn Saulters at halftime.
ULM scored the first basket and it was the only time they led in the game. ULM forward Tommie Sykes got to the free throw line eight times in the first 19 minutes and missed seven of the eight. The Cajuns fans cheered when he finally made one. The Cajuns led by 11 at the half and it should have been 13. But official Jon Stigliano whistled Raymone Andrews for a shooting foul 79 feet from the basket as time expired, in one of the silliest calls I've ever seen. Stigliano did the same thing at the Cajundome, giving Randell Daigle three shots to tie the game at the end of overtime against Middle Tennessee. Stigliano has a reputation of blowing the whistle. A lot. I really figured we'd see a game where a gazillion free throws were shot. To my surprise (and my delight) that wasn't the case. Kyle Neve and Manny Upton kept Stigliano in line, I guess. In fact, other than that call and a charge that was called on a spectacular Travis Bureau dunk, I had no issues with the officiating at all.
ULM cut the lead to six points early in the second half, but the Cajuns went on a 10-0 run to put the game away. La'Ryan Gary only had to play 23 minutes. I thought Josh Brown had his best overall game since coming back from his last injury. Marlin started him Saturday night and Brown rewarded him for the decision.
ULM, like so many schools, is financially strapped. And although the Cajuns have one of the lowest budgets among FBS schools, ULM has the lowest. And it shows in the little things. There were no ball boys under the goal Saturday night. That meant when players went to the floor, officials were cleaning up the wet spots with their shoes, or in a couple of cases, with the towels that the ULM players were using to dry themselves off. Now, I understand financial restraints, but sometimes you have to find a way to show a little pride. I gotta believe there are some nine year old kids in the city of Monroe that would love to be a part of college basketball. And, they'd probably do it for free concessions, or even less. And I'm sure SOMEONE in the city has some old towels they could donate so ULM players wouldn't have to have their towels used for the purpose of wiping a floor.
It was a workmanlike performance by the squad for their eleventh straight win. ULM assistant and former Cajuns head coach Robert Lee had hugs for his former players after the game and then the team went to thank the fans and, for the first time, sing the fight song at a road game.
One of the things that I liked was the Cajuns didn't do a lot of celebrating. They had won the game and the Western Division title, but even in the locker room, they didn't celebrate much. Like their coach, the team was pretty even keel....like they still have some unfinished business.
After the postgame I visited with Coach Marlin in the locker room. The team had already headed toward the bus. Marlin was very pleased with the effort again. He was especially happy that his team had secured a first round bye in the tournament. The Cajuns will have a very difficult quarterfinal game against (probably) Western Kentucky, but then again, nothing has been easy for this team during the streak.
Except maybe, for Saturday night.