UL's NCAA plans spoiled after Sun Belt Tournament loss to UTA Mavericks
Sometimes athletic competition just isn’t fair.
That certainly was the case with UL’s heartbreaking 71-68 loss to the UTA Mavericks in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinals Saturday at Lakefront Arena.
This 2018 Ragin’ Cajuns team was one that appeared to do all the right things throughout the season to prepare itself for this weekend’s big NCAA opportunity in New Orleans.
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It has great leadership.
It always seems focused on the task at hand.
It pulls for each other.
It isn't selfish.
It has showed resiliency all season long.
The only real hiccup was not handling Senior Night activities very well in a regular-season finale home loss to last-place Little Rock, but no team is perfect.
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And yet, there it was Saturday afternoon in a dogfight with the Mavs for 40 minutes without two of its top six weapons.
Senior shot blocker JaKeenan Gant couldn’t stop coughing from an illness and was limited to nine minutes, and Johnathan Stove’s ankle injury reduced him to five minutes.
That’s getting dealt a rough hand after a history-making 26-5 regular season.
My one hope for this group as it began building momentum this season was that it decided its final outcome. If it just shot especially awful one night and got beat, that’s sports.
But you didn’t want an illness or an injury or a bad call late in a close game to play a role in crushing the NCAA dreams of a bunch like this.
On Saturday, all three happened.
UTA coach Scott Cross said he knows exactly how this Cajuns team feels and sympathized with UL’s pain. A year ago, his Mavs won the regular season with dominating 14-4 fashion also, only to lose to Texas State 83-62 in the semifinals.
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That’s sort of the same, except for the deficit difference and the unforced bad breaks to the Cajuns’ depth.
The point is this UL team seems to be made up of good guys that deserved a better fate.
“I’m proud of our team,” UL coach Bob Marlin said. “I’m proud of what we accomplished this year. It’s the best record in school history. I’m not going to let a couple of bad breaks in the last minute take away from our love for this basketball team and what they’ve accomplished over the last year.
“I’m proud of our seniors. They’re devastated.”
That intense pain is because this NCAA goal really mattered to them and they had prepared the right way to achieve it.
Even UTA star senior Kevin Hervey began his comments in the post-game press conference by saying the Cajun seniors were “stand-up guys … tremendous guys” and “it was a pleasure playing against them the last four years.”
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You see, this year’s Mavs didn’t get it until late in the season.
Cross detailed how dynamic senior guard Erick Neal approached him on a road trip late in the season frustrated and asking his coach what they needed to do to turn it around.
Of course, Cross replied with things like buying in and working extra after practicing and working together, etc. — all the things a good team should already be doing.
All the things this Cajuns team have done since day one.
Cross talked about how tough it is to keep seniors motivated through the course of a long season.
That never seemed to be a challenge for this UL squad.
Moreover, when Kaelon Wilson was asked what sparked the Mavs’ big performance Saturday, his response was revealing.
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“We weren’t arguing with each other,” said Wilson, who stepped up big for UTA with 17 points and eight rebounds. “We coached each other up and just kept going.”
Certainly, the Mavs deserve credit for their performance. They outshot and out-rebounded the Cajuns on Saturday after losing 77-65 and 100-79 in the regular season.
Yes, there were certainly on-the-court issues that contributed to the loss.
Ironically, the biggest preseason question mark for this team was point guard depth behind Marcus Stroman.
And when he fouled out with 1:19 left to play on a poor call, UL didn’t get a good shot in its final two possessions with its floor general on the bench.
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But again, this unit deserved better.
Fittingly, the only finger-pointing by the Cajun players in the post-game press conference was in the mirror.
The pause and then groan prior to senior Bryce Washington’s response to a question about UTA’s critical hustle rebounds late in the game again revealed his character as a team leader.
“They got some big rebounds, and that’s my fault,” Washington said in a low, frustrated voice. “They wanted it more than me. That’s the worst part because my one job is to rebound. That’s not what a senior leader does.”
Obviously, that’s Bryce being way too hard on himself, but no one ever accused him of not being accountable.
Then, only seconds later, Washington immediately tossed aside any window for some self-pity and snapped back into his role as the ultimate leader.
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“That’s life. and we need to learn from it,” he said.
So as distraught as this team must be after Saturday’s semifinal exit, don’t expect it to respond poorly.
“We’re in the NIT,” Washington said. “That’s still a blessing for our team. The goal was the NCAA Tournament, especially for our five seniors. We fell a little short, but it’s a blessing still. It gives you a chance to wake up and to practice.
“I want to leave a legacy to these young guys. My goal was to pass the torch when I leave. There’s no point in me putting my head down. If I do that, he (teammate Justin Miller) is going to put his head down. That’s not what a leader does.”
Or this 2017-18 Ragin’ Cajuns basketball squad.