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Men’s Basketball: Unpleasant farewell – Toppers trip up Cajuns in final Sun Belt dome trip

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, Jan. 26, 2014

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From a double-digit advantage to a double-digit deficit, the UL Ragin’ Cajuns went from up to down in a hurry Saturday.

They were ahead by as many 10 points midway through the first half, then squandered that lead and trailed by 16 with just under 14 minutes to go.

Then they pressed. And they trapped. But they couldn’t quite blow the Hilltoppers down.

The Cajuns did rally to get to within as close as two with 6:51 remaining, but Western Kentucky held on Saturday to beat UL 79-70 in an ESPN2-televised game played in a front of a season-high 4,998 at the Cajundome.

Along with Thursday’s 77-70 defeat to league-leading Georgia State it was the second straight loss in a key two-game homestand, and the third loss in four games overall, for the Cajuns, who fell to 12-8 overall and 3-4 in Sun Belt Conference play.

Western Kentucky, playing its final game at the Cajundome as a member of the Sun Belt before moving to Conference USA later this year, improved to 13-7 and 5-2 behind a game-high 25 points that included 10-of-14 mostly inside field shooting and 5-of-5 free-throw shooting by George Fant.

“He was a man today,” WKU head coach Ray Harper said of Fant, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound junior forward who was a second-team preseason All-Sun Belt pick.

That effort helped WKU overcome Elfrid Payton’s team-high 16 points, Shawn Long’s 13-point, 11-rebound double-double and a Cajun rally bid that fell short.

“We (were) able to force some turnovers in our press and it led to some easy shot opportunities, and we (were) able to knock some 3s down, and it closed fast,” Payton said.

But not fast enough.

UL led 24-14 early, but the Cajuns – without a field goal for the final 4:28 of the first half – saw their lead trimmed to 37-32 by the break.

“We got beat in transition a couple of times,” UL coach Bob Marlin said, “and then we had some soft fouls, gave them some and-1s.”

“We kind of got away from what we (were) doing,” Payton added. “We stopped executing, and it cost us.”

WKU went up by 16 when two T.J. Price free throws, a three-point play the old-fashioned way by Fant and the second of two Trency Jackson free throws made it 54-38 with 14:06 left.

But the Cajuns showed no quit, reeling off a 15-3 run behind an Xavian Rimmer free throw, Payton’s baseline slice, an inside bucket from Long,

Kevin Brown’s steal-and-layup, a 3-pointer by Brown that rimmed out but banked in, Bryant Mbamalu’s 3-pointer from the right corner over Jackson and two free throws from Brown.

The run briefly was interrupted when WKU was awarded a timeout just before what would have been a Kasey Shepherd steal for the Cajuns.

A sliver of chaos ensued, and both coaches were hit with technicals.

“It kind of broke the momentum,” Payton said. “I think we still wound up getting a stop that possession, but it just kind of broke our rhythm a little bit. There was nothing would do. It was a tough timeout.”

But the Cajuns kept trying to come back anyway.

“That one stretch in the second half, Bob (Marlin) did a great job. They went small and caused us a lot of problems,” Harper said.

“Fortunately we were able to make a lot of plays down the stretch.”

Before they did, though, Mbamalu’s bucket at the 6:51 mark pulled the Cajuns to within two at 61-59.

UL had a chance to take back the lead after a WKU turnover, but a trey try by Brown missed.

Fant scored with a scoop inside on the other end and hit the ensuing free throw after being fouled by Long, and WKU pushed its lead back to as many as nine a few times after that.

“We let them dribble and lay the ball in,” Marlin said of UL’s late-game defense. “We got beat repeatedly off the dribble when we were scrambling, and because of that they scored easy baskets.”

The Cajuns wound up shooting just 38.3 percent (23-of-60) from the field, including 33.3 percent (5-of-15) from 3-point range.

But WKU finished 26-of-53 – 49.1 percent – from the field.

“That’s not good enough at all,” said Mbamalu, who acknowledged his own 3-for-10 field shooting.

“We just have to do a better job of executing and getting the ball in the rim,” he added.

“I mean, they’re a pretty good defensive team. Give them credit. But they’re not that great, to where we shoot such a bad percentage.”