LAFAYETTE, La. – Bryant Mbamalu scored a season-high 26 points and the Ragin' Cajuns rebounded from some poor foul shooting early in the game to make their final 11 attempts in the final 90 seconds of the game, moving into first place in the Sun Belt west division with a 79-70 win over UALR on Saturday night at the Cajundome.
The win, Louisiana's sixth in 15 games this year, improved the Cajuns to 5-2 at home and 2-2 in Sun Belt play. UALR slipped to 8-7 overall and 2-2 in Sun Belt play.
"I thought we worked hard and played hard," Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin said. "I think that everybody contributed in some way tonight. It was a team win."
"We came out tonight ready to play and jumped on them from the start. We defended them pretty well and took away some of the things they like to do offensively, but some calls went against us that allowed them to take the lead back before halftime.
Mbamalu continued his torrid scoring by going nine-for-14 from the field to post his third 20-point game in the last four games. Elfrid Payton added 12 points and six assists while Alan-Michael Thompson came off the bench to score 13 points.
Shawn Long, who was held to just two points and three rebounds in the first half, battled through foul trouble in the second half to finish with 10 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots for his league-best eighth double-double of the year. He had six points and five rebounds in the last five minutes of the game.
Will Neighbour led the Trojans with 17 points and 14 rebounds while Josh Hagins added 14 points.
Although the Cajuns led for 38 of the 40 minutes in the game, the leads were never secure.
The Trojans closed to within 64-61 on a Hagins trey with 4:51 left, but Mbamalu and Long each followed with baskets, Long's coming after a battle for the ball and putback on the offensive glass with 2:32 left, giving Louisiana a 68-61 lead.
Those were the final baskets of the game for the Cajuns as UALR was forced to foul down the stretch.
Louisiana bounced back from misses in their first two attempts to make their final 11 attempts, denying the Trojans an opportunity to pull closer and secure the win.
"I thought that was important for us," Marlin said. "We are a much better free throw shooting team this year and even though we missed some free throws early in the game, we had the confidence to step to the line and put away the win."
Free throws were a key to the game.
The Cajuns jumped out to an 8-0 just 135 seconds into the game and eventually led by as many as 13 in the first half (24-11, 11:33) before their aggressive defense led to a string of free throws for UALR. The Trojans went 18-for-20 from the stripe in the first half (.900), while Louisiana was going just two-for-four (.500), to rally.
UL took a 34-30 lead on a three-pointer by Thompson with 1:54 left, but Hagins scored seven straight points to close the half. He connected on a three-pointer with 52 seconds left in the half and then went to the line and knocked down two free throws following a controversial technical foul called against Mbamalu.
After trailing 37-34 at the half, the Ragin' Cajuns used a 9-3 run to start the second half and reclaim the lead, 43-40 with 16:59 left.
The lead would change hands several times in the next couple of minutes before Mbamalu would score five straight points, including a three-pointer with 13:22 left that made it a 49-45 game.
The Trojans would come no closer than five points after that.
Louisiana was efficient offensively in the game, going 27-for-55 from the field (.491) and 18-for-25 from the line (.720) with seven three-pointers to help offset being out-rebounded 44-32, including 21-7 on the offensive glass. UL turned the ball over a season-low nine times.
The Cajun defense forced just 10 turnovers but did apply enough pressure to limit UALR to .313 shooting (21-67), the lowest effort by a Cajun opponent this year.
"We really defended hard and that is why they (UALR) didn't get too many open looks at the basket," Marlin said.
Louisiana was helped by 23 points from its bench, including Thompson's 13 points and eight from Josh Soto.
"Josh is starting to find his stroke. He was a little bit rusty when he first started playing, but he has picked things up offensively over the last three or four games. That is a great sign," Marlin said.
Louisiana heads back out on the road next week, starting a stretch that has them playing four road games in its next six games. The Cajuns will open a two-game swing through Florida by playing at Florida Atlantic on Thursday, Jan 3 at 6:00 p.m. CST and at FIU on Saturday (Jan. 5) at 6:30 p.m. CST.
BANK SHOTS: The Cajuns and Trojans met for the 38th time overall and 17th time at the Cajundome…Louisiana upped its all-time series lead to 22-16 which includes a 12-5 edge at the Cajundome…Louisiana, UALR and Arkansas State are in a three-way tie for the Sun Belt West lead, all with 2-2 league marks…The Cajuns shot 11-of-13 from the free throw line in the final 5:00 of the contest, improving to 71-of-88 (.807) for the season…Louisiana improved to 23-13 in Sun Belt action under Bob Marlin, improving his league-best winning percentage amongst active coaches to .639…Bryant Mbamalu scored 20-plus points in a home contest for the second straight outing (scored 22 vs. Duquesne last Saturday) and ended the month of December averaging 19.8 points per game in four home outings…Shawn Long reached double figures in points for the 12th straight outing, a streak which dates back to a 22-point effort vs. SUNO (Nov. 21).