Louisiana Holds Off Little Rock To Survive And Advance
You don't have to play a pretty game in the tournament, you just have to win. Louisiana survived some serious cold spells against Little Rock, but they moved on to the second round.
The Ragin' Cajuns experienced several different scoring droughts against Little Rock, including a seven minute spell in the second half where they couldn't buy a bucket. Louisiana's defense stepped up when their offense was on the rocks, and they kept the Trojans at arm's length for a first round victory, 78-71, in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
Louisiana buried Little Rock from the free throw line (32-38 FT, 84%). They outscored them by 20 points from the charity stripe, and free throws served as their lifeline when the ball wasn't finding the bottom of the basket.
Director of Basketball Operations Mike Murphy thought the free throw shooting was the deciding factor in the win.
"Without question, that was the difference in the basketball game, and it came from several different players," Murphy said. "In tournament play, I can't tell you how important that is. It's such a pressure cooker. One and done. The dogs bark and the caravan moves on."
Louisiana is on their way to the second round to play Georgia State on Friday. If Justin Miller and Jay Wright play like they did against Little Rock, they have a chance to keep the caravan moving.
Wright is the senior leader on the team, and he played like it. He led all scorers with 24 points, and he hit 12 of his 13 free throw attempts. Wright led the way on offense, but he also made a huge difference on defense, as usual.
"Because of Jay's defense on [Marcus] Johnson [Jr.], it disrupted their offensive flow," Murphy said after the game.
Wright's tenacious defense is contagious. When he takes the ball handler out of the game, the rest of the squad handles the rest.
Senior leadership is key in tournament play, but you also need other players to step up in clutch time too. For Louisiana, it was a freshman who shouldered the load in the midst of March Madness.
Justin Miller made his first seven shots from the floor to set the scoring tone for the Ragin' Cajuns, and he finished with 20 points. It was an impressive performance from the freshman, and he avoided foul trouble in the second half to help the team seal the deal.
The usual characters were involved too. Bryce Washington was one rebound shy of a double-double (12 pts, 9 reb), and Johnathan Stove came up with 11 points and five early rebounds. Frank Bartley only scored six points on four shot attempts, but he played solid defense and came up with two steals and a block.
Little Rock tried to take Louisiana out of their element. The Ragin' Cajuns only attempted 44 shots all game, which is way under their preferred amount, but they found a way to win the game at the free throw line. It wasn't the most beautiful game they played all season, but it was enough to earn them a chance to keep fighting in the Sun Belt Tournament.
Coach Murphy knows their second round matchup with Georgia State will be another tough test, but he thinks they are prepared for what's ahead.
"Skill-wise, they're the most talented team in the league," Murphy said. He added, "The challenge Friday will be significant, but I think the guys are up to it."
Georgia State hung over 100 points on the Cajuns in their last meeting and they got the better of Louisiana in Atlanta too. The Cajuns are looking for a little payback, and the Panthers are going for the sweep. The stakes are high, but what else would you expect in the month of March?