ULL clinches NCAA tournament bid
University of Louisiana at Lafayette earned the Sun Belt Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament Sunday with an 83-82 win against Georgia State Sunday in the Sun Belt Conference Championship in New Orleans. From left are ULL player and Morgan City High alum Shawn Long, ULL head coach Bob Marlin and ULL player Elfrid Payton. (Submitted Photo/Courtesy of Courtney “Schola” Long)
Before the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns men’s basketball team slogan was “Our Mission Is March.”
And after a remarkable run, highlighted by wins in 11 of their final 13 games down the stretch, the Ragin’ Cajuns are going dancing for the first time in nearly a decade.
Xavian Rimmer scored a career-high 27 points while Elfrid Payton scored six of his 19 points in overtime as the third-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns edged top-seeded Georgia State, 83-82, in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Sunday at Lakefront Arena.
“What a basketball game,” ULL head coach Bob Marlin said in a news release. “What a great tournament by the City of New Orleans and the Sun Belt Conference, and we extended it five more minutes.
“We beat a good basketball team. They’re tough because they can score in so many ways. Ryan Harrow was sensational. They’re hard to guard, but we made enough plays to win the game. Great effort by these guys. … I’m extremely proud of them.”
With the win, Louisiana-Lafayette (23-11) earned its first trip to the NCAA Championships since 2005 and will face third-seeded Creighton (26-7) Friday at approximately 2:10 p.m. at San Antonio’s AT&T Center.
“It’s taken us a little bit longer (reaching the NCAA Championship) than we anticipated,” Marlin said. “We expected to get here after our second year; we didn’t. We had some setbacks. Last year, we were very young. This year, we’ve won a lot of close games.
“It’s satisfying to me to get the tradition going again at UL. We have a great basketball tradition, and we’re excited to get the fans excited again about basketball.”
The Cajuns, who edged two-time defending tournament champion Western Kentucky University in the semifinals Saturday, trailed 66-55 with 5:21 remaining Sunday after a bucket by Harrow before mounting a comeback for the second straight game.
Two free throws by Manny Atkins with 3:02 remaining gave Georgia State (25-8) a 70-61 lead before a 3-pointer by Payton and foul by Marcus Crider gave the Cajuns a chance to cut into the lead. Bryant Mbamalu, who scored 11 of his 13 points after halftime, cut the lead to 70-66 on a layup with 2:34 left before Morgan City High alum Shawn Long answered a tip-in by Harrow with a dunk with 1:40 remaining that closed the gap to 72-68.
A steal by Louisiana-Lafayette’s Kevin Brown led to a Payton layup with 46 seconds remaining that cut the lead to 72-70 before Mbamalu scored on a short layup with 1.4 seconds left to force overtime.
The Panthers took a 77-74 lead when R.J. Hunter hit a 3-pointer before Payton scored the next points to help the Cajuns take control.
Playing just outside his hometown, Payton drove the lane for a layup before hitting two free throws with 1:13 remaining, which gave the Cajuns the lead for good, 78-77. The Gretna native then recorded his lone steal of the game when he stepped in front of a Devonta White pass and scored on a layup for an 80-77 lead with 44 seconds left.
Rimmer gave Louisiana-Lafayette an 82-79 lead when he hit two free throws with 28 seconds remaining before Harrow made it an 82-81 contest when he scored on a layup.
On the ensuing inbounds, Rimmer was fouled but missed the front end of a 1-and-1, giving Georgia State an opportunity to earn the league’s NCAA berth in its first season.
But Harrow, who scored 37 points on 13-for-22 shooting from the floor, missed on a short jumper in the lane, with Elridge Moore grabbing the rebound and helping the Cajuns run out the clock.
“We just tried our hardest to keep him (Harrow) out of the paint,” Payton said. “It was a tough shot. I just tried my best to make sure there was no weak side rebound, and he missed it. I guess he was due for a miss.”
Mbamalu, who was named the Most Outstanding Player, was joined on the All-Tournament team by Rimmer. Joining the duo were Harrow, Hunter, Ed Townsel of Arkansas State and Reger Dowell of UT-Arlington.
“This is big to me,” Mbamalu said. “It’s really a team award. My teammates do a good job of encouraging me, looking for me and finding me. My coaches, too, they put me in good positions to be successful. I never got the opportunity to be all-conference, but to win this is big time for me.”