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Basketball: Champagne’s return spoiled

Fans on hand for UL’s exhibition last weekend wouldn’t think the Ragin’ Cajuns could win a basketball game with defense.

Robert Lee said they did on Wednesday night. So did Bobby Champagne, who’s seen his share of Cajun games. In fact, so did the UL players after their 79-67 victory over North Alabama at the Cajundome.

The Cajuns held the Lions to 40 percent shooting. They limited a solid 3-point shooting UNA team to six treys in 17 attempts, and its leading scorer, Quinn Beckwith, to only one shot in the first half.

And, they broke open a close game midway through the second half with four straight steals that turned into three easy baskets. It would have been four, but senior David Dees missed a dunk.

"I missed a dunk," Dees lamented after the game. "And I killed a bug on the side of the backboard on one free throw. I did things tonight I’ve never done in my life. But we won and that soothes a lot."

Dees deserves more credit for his defense, since he was manned up with Beckwith and his 20.0 scoring average most of the first half. In fact, the entire Cajun defense was much more effective than in its exhibition against Louisiana College, holding UNA 16 points below its average.

"They did a good job of pressuring the ball," said Champagne, a Lafayette native and former UL assistant who is in his fifth year as the Lions’ head coach. "They’re very long and very athletic, and we couldn’t expose their back-side help defense."

"We were trying to up the tempo of the game a little," said Lee, whose team won its home opener for the ninth time in 10 seasons. "We had a stretch where we were really trying to get over-aggressive."

That stretch came at a good time for the hosts, who were in a dogfight at 43-all with 13:39 left on Phil Collins’ 3-pointer. Elijah Millsap made a free throw for a 44-43 advantage, and UL’s defense picked off steals on the next four UNA possessions. Two ended up with layups and one provided two free throws, and suddenly it was 50-43.

The Lions never got closer than four points the rest of the way, and UL stretched the lead to double figures in the final four minutes.

Millsap had 17 of his game-high 21 points in the second half while hitting 9-of-14 shots and getting a game-high 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the year. But it was his six steals he was happier about, especially after the Cajuns struggled for defensive stops in their 95-81 exhibition win over Louisiana College last week.

"We made a lot of improvement," Millsap said. "We made the transition from one guy stepping up on defense to the whole team stepping up. It was really our first game and we were kind of sloppy early, but this is going to help us a lot. They (North Alabama) may be Division II, but they play like Division I."

Wednesday’s game counted as an exhibition for UNA (1-2) and wrapped up a three-exhibition run that included games at Indiana and Alabama.

"We played pretty well," said Champagne, making his first trip to the Cajundome as an opposing head coach. "We had some turnovers (17) that led to easy baskets, but a lot of that has to do with their athleticism. They got more stops than we did and created turnovers, and that’s something we have to work on."

Newcomers Chris Gradnigo and La’Ryan Gary had 15 and 10 points as UL’s other double-digit scorers, while Beckwith heated up in the second half and finished with 15 points. Casey Holt and Thomas Fraise had 14 each, with the burly 6-6 Fraise doing some serious damage inside.

Fraise had eight at halftime and the Lions were within 32-31.

The Cajuns, who travel to play La. Tech in Ruston Friday, were only 12-of-25 from the line and 5-of-18 from 3-point range while missing several inside shots. Still, they shot 47.7 percent as a team, much of that coming on transition baskets.

"I’m not concerned with layups and free throws," Lee said. "That’s just basketball. As long as we concentrate and play with intensity, that’s not a problem."