Bob Marlin’s adjustments help send Ragin’ Cajuns into NCAAs

LAFAYETTE — Switching to a zone defense in the closing minutes Sunday, down by 11 points against the Sun Belt Conference’s most deadly perimeter shooting team, took a lot of nerve.

But University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin has pushed all the right buttons for his squad over the past two months.

How else to explain the Ragin’ Cajuns’ improbable run, one that includes 11 wins in their past 13 games and a sweep of three close games in the weekend Sun Belt Conference Tournament? And how else to explain a team that leads the Sun Belt in scoring, averaging 81.4 per game, winning tournament semifinal and final games with a last-second defensive stop?

UL-Lafayette, a team that lost 20 games a season ago, is 23-11 and headed for an NCAA tournament second-round game against third-seeded Creighton on Friday.

“These guys are competitors,” Marlin said one day after the Cajuns rallied from a double-digit deficit in the last 4:39 to knock off regular-season champion Georgia State 82-81 in overtime. “We’re going to play until the final whistle. If we play our best, we’re going to have an opportunity to win.”

That opportunity, and the hopes of a first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005, didn’t look likely when Georgia State led 68-58 inside the five-minute mark Sunday at UNO’s Lakefront Arena. That’s about the time that Marlin called for the zone — something that the Panthers’ long-range gunners rarely see.

“We were winded,” Marlin said. “Elfrid (Payton) was tired, but he wasn’t going to come out. Going to the zone changed the pace of the game.”

It also slowed Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, who had gashed the Cajun defense for much of the game on his way to 37 points, and gave Payton more of a chance to defend the Panthers guard. Payton, the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year, had spent much of the game manned up on R. J. Hunter, the league’s MVP who finished with 17 points on 4-of-12 shooting.

Harrow had the ball at the end of overtime, after Xavier Rimmer’s free throw miss, but Payton forced him into an off-balance baseline jumper, and Elridge Moore grabbed the rebound at the horn.

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

Payton had done the same thing one afternoon earlier, at almost the same spot on the court, when his defensive harassment forced a miss from Western Kentucky’s T. J. Price at the buzzer of the 73-72 semifinal win.

Payton’s task gets more difficult Friday against Creighton (26-7), which went 14-4 in its first year in the Big East Conference on the shoulders of Doug McDermott. The 6-foot-8 forward and son of Blue Jays coach Greg McDermott leads the nation in scoring (26.9) and ranks fifth in NCAA history in career scoring (3,105 points).

Despite the size difference, it’s likely the 6-foot-3 Payton will match up with McDermott’s inside and outside scoring abilities regularly Friday.

“Elfrid Payton is one of the best point guards in America,” Greg McDermott said. “And anyone who knows anything about college basketball knows the job that Bob Marlin’s done.”

The McDermott clan will be the second father-son tandem the Cajuns have faced in as many games, with Georgia State coach Ron Hunter tutoring son R.J. It’s also not the first time Marlin and UL-Lafayette have faced the twosome, since Marlin took his first Cajuns team to Creighton three years ago in Doug McDermott’s freshman season and lost a close 63-58 battle.

“He’s a great athlete and a super young man. They’re just good people,” Marlin said. “I’ve been fortunate to know them. When we first saw Doug, he was a skinny 6-foot-7 postman, and I told our coaches that he was going to be a good player. But I didn’t know he was going to be one of the leading scorers in the country. There’ll be a lot of eyes on our game because of him.”

Marlin said his team needs scoring from more than Payton (19.1) and postman Shawn Long (18.7, 10.5 RB) to have success, and the Cajuns got that during the Sun Belt tournament. Tourney MVP Bryant Mbamalu had 20 points in the first-round win over UT Arlington and 23 against Western Kentucky, and junior guard Xavian Rimmer (8.9) erupted for 24 against UT-Arlington and a career-high 27 including 7-of-12 3-pointers in the final. It was Mbamalu and Rimmer, and not the Cajuns’ top two producers all year, who made the all-tournament team.

“People who try to just key on me or Elfrid, they make a mistake,” said Long, who had 11 points and 14 rebounds Sunday. “We’ve got guys that can go for 30 any night.”