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Basketball: LSU holds off Cajuns for NIT win in intense game, which is why they should play annually

Glenn Guilbeau, USA TODAY Network, March 14, 2018

BATON ROUGE — It was a very good game and more watchable than most in the National Invitation Tournament.

LSU was in control for the most part, but never could put Louisiana-Lafayette away until the very end for an 84-76 victory in a NIT opener before about 10,000 Wednesday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

There were no significant incidents during the game until the very end when there was a minor scuffle between the two benches. But order was quickly restored.

In the end, one conclusion was clear: There is no reason why these two programs — located less than an hour apart on Interstate 10 — should not play once a season. Do it in November and December before the students go home for the holidays. 

Neither program exactly fills either of its arenas up consistently. College basketball is the third sport in Louisiana behind football and baseball. Each school could use a more interesting non-conference game. Why waste the money travelling for another non-conference game or paying a school to come in, when there is a neighbor so close with each team usually featuring several players from the state?

If this game proved anything, it was that — play every year. 

The Cajuns (27-7) fought off a 40-28 deficit at the half in the third quarter to climb within three. And after trailing 61-53 after three quarters, UL cut it to 73-72 in the final two minutes before finally falling by eight.

The game meant something to both teams, and that rarely happens in the second line NIT.

LSU (18-14) advances to play the winner of Wednesday night's game between Utah and California-Davis. If Utah wins, LSU would travel for a Monday game. If UC Davis wins, it would travel to LSU for a Monday game. 

Senior forward Duop Reath led all scorers with 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as UL never found an answer for him. Guard Brandon Sampson added 18. Guard Frank Bartley led the Cajuns with 21 points, and guard Johnathan Stove added 17.

Stove, who made a layup and the free throw, cut LSU's lead to 54-51 with 2:48 to go in the third period. But the Cajuns could get no closer until the final minutes. Reath scored an inside bucket, then nailed a 3-pointer to put the Tigers up 59-51 with 38 seconds left. After two free throws by guard Marcus Stroman cut LSU's lead to 59-53, Sampson hit two free throws with three seconds left for the 61-53 advantage.

Reath opened the fourth quarter with 18 points.

LSU began to pull away from UL in the second quarter and took a 40-28 lead into halftime.

The Tigers outscored the Cajuns 9-2 midway in the second period to take a 33-23 lead with 3:21 to go before halftime on a layup by Sampson. LSU found the new wider lane to its liking as it was extended by 12 to 16 feet according to a NIT experimental rule. Time after time, Tiger players drove the lane for easy baskets.

The Cajuns jumped out to 7-0 and 10-2 leads in the early going, but the Tigers came back to lead 18-15 after the first 10-minute period and opened up a 30-23 lead in the second period before going up by double digits.

The Cajuns took their 10-2 lead on three-pointer by Bartley at the seven-minute mark. Bartley also hit a 3-pointer in the opening seconds for a 3-0 lead.

The NIT is experimenting with several rule changes, including dividing the game into four periods of 10 minutes instead of the customary two 10-minute halves.

With UL up 7-0, LSU 5-foot-10 point guard Tremont Waters drove to the basket, but his shot was rejected with authority by 6-6 forward Bryce Washington. Waters had just two points at the half.

LSU battled back to get within 10-6 at the four-minute mark. Waters' driving layup gave the Tigers their first lead of the game at 12-10 at the 2:04 mark. Skylar Mays and Daryl Edwards then drove easily through the middle of the Cajuns' defense for easy layups and a 16-12 lead with 50 seconds left.

Guard Cedric Russell hit a long 3-pointer to get the Cajuns within 16-15 with 35 seconds left before Aaron Epps drove for another LSU layup and the 18-15 lead.