Basketball can be a cruel game.
With the Ragin’ Cajuns down 70-69 to South Alabama, a last-second Cedric Russell 3-pointer clanked off the back of the rim on Thursday, and Louisiana’s hopes for a Sun Belt Conference Championship were gone.
“I felt like we had an opportunity to win the game,” Head Coach Bob Marlin said. “It was there for the taking, and we just missed a couple shots ... We’d beaten them five times in a row, but tonight was their night.”
“‘Ced’ popped up, and that’s one of our best shooters,” said senior guard Marcus Stroman. “I know the whole coaching staff and the players trust ‘Ced’ taking that shot.”
Before Russell’s miss, senior leader JaKeenan Gant tied the game at 69 with a clutch finish in the paint. Gant led the Ragin’ Cajuns with 26 points, 12 rebounds, a block and two steals. However, he later missed a pair of free throws that could have given Louisiana the lead with just over one minute remaining.
As the game winded down to the final seconds, P.J. Hardy attempted to tie up South Alabama’s Rodrick Sikes on a fast break but was called for a foul. Sikes split his pair of free throws to give South Alabama a one-point lead the Ragin’ Cajuns couldn’t overcome.
Gant said as he walked off the court following the loss, he couldn’t get the missed free throws out of his head. Missed shots were a recurring theme throughout the contest. Louisiana shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc, and the team’s two best shooters — Russell and Hardy — combined to make just 2 of 14 3-point attempts.
“P.J., Justin (Miller) and Cedric did not shoot the ball well,” Marlin said. “They didn’t give us what they had been given us in the past, and it just wasn’t enough.”
It was a one-and-done appearance in the SBC Tournament that can’t be described as anything but a major disappointment. Louisiana hadn’t lost to South Alabama since Feb. 27, 2016, but a team-high 25 points from Jaguars’ All-Sun Belt second-team forward Josh Ajayi helped change the tide at Lakefront Arena.
For the team’s senior leaders like Gant, Thursday’s lost has an unsettling air of finality.
“My journey has been great, just giving it my all and trying to win. I’m just ... I’m speechless to be honest,” said Gant.
Stroman played through a hamstring injury he’d suffered in the final regular season win over Arkansas State. Stroman didn’t admit that the injury affected him in any way, and it didn’t show on the court. He finished with a maestro-esque performance, orchestrating Louisiana’s offense to the tune of 13 assists — a single-game SBC tournament record.
“It didn’t affect me. I came out, played my game and we just fell short,” Stroman said.
Marlin made it clear that he thought Gant should’ve won SBC Player of the Year this season. Gant, who averaged 20.2 points per game, 8.6 rebounds per game and made the All-Sun Belt first team, lost the award to Georgia Southern guard Tookie Brown, who averaged 17.3 points and 4.7 assists.
“JaKeenan played super, and he’s had a fantastic year,” Marlin said. “He was Player of the Year in the league in my mind. I don’t think there was any question, but evidently, other people think different.”
Marlin made sure to mention senior Malik Marquetti in the wake of Thursday’s loss. Marquetti’s scoring (15 PPG) and leadership were lost for the season in December when he suffered an ACL injury.
“Malik has done a great job for us,” Marlin said. “He was one of our best defenders and best shooters when he went out. We lost the (regular season) conference championship by three games and I think Malik makes up that difference. I don’t think there’s any question that we have a different outcome to our season if he’s healthy.”
Louisiana’s seniors will finish their careers with 46 combined wins over a two-year period. They were a huge part of the record-setting 2017-18 season in which the team won a school record 27 games. Stroman will finish as the only Louisiana guard to register 200 assists in back-to-back seasons. Along with making first-team all-conference, Gant is a two-time SBC Defensive Player of the Year.
As Louisiana looks ahead to next year, they will have to replace one of the school’s most successful groups. As for recruiting, Rayville High guard Mylik Wilson, Miami Norland High forward Chris Spenkuch and Pearland High guard Javonne Lowrey will all become Ragin’ Cajuns next season.
The team will also acquire the services of coveted forward Kobe Julien, who — if not for severely injuring his knee in his final season at Madison Prep in Baton Rouge — would have contributed this year for Louisiana.