Cajuns score Sun Belt title, matchup with Creighton

Louisiana-Lafayette finally found a way to stop Ryan Harrow when it mattered most.

After making a dramatic comeback at the end of regulation, the Ragin’ Cajuns forced Harrow into an off-target bank shot in the final seconds of overtime, beating top seed Georgia State 82-81 in the Sun Belt Conference tournament title game Sunday at Lakefront Arena.

The win sent UL-Lafayette (23-11) to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. On Friday as a No. 14 seed in the West Region, they’ll face No. 3 seed Creighton — and Doug McDermott, the nation’s leading scorer — in San Antonio in the tournament’s second round.

Harrow torched UL-Lafayette for 37 points, including 10 in a row on an array of acrobatic layups as Georgia State appeared to take control in the second half, but he came up empty on his final attempt. Trying to dribble to the basket in the final 5 seconds, he could not get past Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Elfrid Payton (a John Ehret product), settling for a low-percentage attempt out of desperation.

Payton had checked Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year R.J. Hunter for most of the game, and Hunter made only 4 of his 12 shots.

“Ryan was dribbling to the basket and making tough layups and beating us off the dribble,” UL-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin said. “Elfrid said, ‘Coach, let me guard him.’ ”

Said Payton: “We just tried our hardest to keep him out of the paint. I guess he was due for a miss.”

The clock ran out right after Elridge Moore secured the rebound, sparking a wild celebration as third-seeded UL-Lafayette took out the top-seeded Panthers (25-7).

Xavian Rimmer scored a career-high 27, draining seven 3s to keep UL-Lafayette close most of the way. Payton added 19 points. Bryant Mbamalu, named tournament MVP, scored 13, and Shawn Long had 11 points and 14 rebounds.

Georgia State, which won the Sun Belt by five games in the regular season, had lost only once in its past 23 games.

“We’re a team to watch out for,” Payton said. “We can score in so many ways, and now that our defense has picked up these last 11 or 12 games, we can play with anybody.”

Trailing 70-61 with three minutes left, UL-Lafayette looked like it would have to settle for its first winning season in nine years. But the Ragin’ Cajuns had other ideas.

They scored on a five-point possession when Payton hit his only 3 of the game and the Panthers were whistled for a foul under the basket while the shot was in the air. Mbamalu drove for a layup to cut the deficit to 72-66 and, after the teams traded baskets, Payton scored on a layup off a steal to make the score 72-70 with 46.2 seconds left.

Mbamalu capped the frantic comeback with a tying putback with 1.4 seconds left in regulation after Long came up with an offensive rebound and found him open by the rim.

“I was kind of nervous when I caught it,” Mbamalu said. “Thank God I was able to put it in.”

UL-Lafayette scored six straight points in overtime to take the lead for good.

“What a basketball game,” Marlin said. “Ryan Harrow was sensational, but we made enough plays to win the game.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns were particularly strong after missed shots, grabbing 20 offensive rebounds that led to 17 second-chance points while limiting the Panthers to two points on four offensive boards.

That has been the blueprint to beating Georgia State, which plays zone exclusively and is the worst rebounding team in the Sun Belt. UL-Lafayette was tough enough to execute it, with the final basket of regulation a perfect example.

“It gives you an opportunity to get a lot easier shot than the first one,” Marlin said. “It was a big factor in my mind.”

The large contingent of Ragin’ Cajuns fans in Lakefront Arena cheered all the way through the break from the end of regulation to overtime. Marlin’s first three years as coach were frustrating as he tried to revive the program, but the payoff came Sunday.

“It’s satisfying for me to get the tradition going again,” he said. “We have a great basketball tradition. We’re excited to get the fans excited again about basketball.”