Mar 8, 2013 11:44 PM by UL Sports Information
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Eighth-seeded Louisiana used an 11-2 run to start the second half to open up a double-figure lead and coast to a 74-55 victory over No. 9 North Texas on Friday night in an opening round game of the 2013 Sun Belt Conference championship.
The victory improves the Ragin' Cajuns to 13-19 on the year and completes the three-game sweep of the Mean Green this year. The Cajuns advance to a quarterfinal matchup with No. 1 Middle Tennessee (27-4, 19-1) on Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. in Summit Arena. The game will be televised live on the Sun Belt Network.
The win snaps Louisiana's seven game losing streak in the Sun Belt championship, including a three-game streak in games played in Hot Springs. The last Louisiana tournament victory was a 62-59 win over Troy on March 5, 2006 in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
"We went out tonight and executed our game plan and took a nice win over a very difficult opponent," Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin said. "I told the guys this week that if we ran our game, the best team would win and it did."
"It feels good to get a win in this tournament. Although I have only been here for three years, I know it had been awhile since we had won a league tournament game. Now we need to put together a winning streak."
Elfrid Payton led the Cajuns with 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and a pair of steals while Alan-Michael Thompson and Bryant Mbamalu added 16 points each.
Jordan Williams paced the Mean Green with 19 points while Roger Franklin added 13 points and Tony Mitchell chipped in with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Payton, the Sun Belt leader in both assists and steals, raised his season assist total to 175, the fifth-highest total in school history while his 75 steals are third best. He know has 272 career assists to rank 20th all-time while his 115 steals are 19th-best. He also played 38 minutes to raise his season total to 1,139, the eighth-highest total in school history.
Shawn Long, who earlier this week was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, had 12 points and 11 rebounds to record his league-best 18th double-double of the year, the fifth-highest total in the nation this year. He continues to lead all freshmen this year averaging 10.4 rebounds a game.
Payton and Long each surpassed the 500-point mark for the season. Payton, who had his ninth 20-point game of the year, now has 509 points while Long has 501.
"Elfrid and Shawn have been reliable all year long and tonight was no different," Marlin said.
The game was decided in the opening minutes of the second half.
After the Cajuns led 33-29 at the break, Williams started the second half scoring by connecting on one of two free throws to make it a 33-30 game.
Louisiana took over after that.
Mbamalu scored down low after grabbing an offensive board.
Payton drove the lane unguarded for an easy basket.
Thompson buried a short jumper and Mbamalu got loose inside for another two.
Chris Jones snapped the run by converting one of two free throws, but Mbamalu answered right back with a long three.
Suddenly, the three-point game turned into a 13-point Cajuns lead and Louisiana was in control.
North Texas would come no closer than eight points the rest of the way and when it did (56-48, 6:50), a Mbamalu trey followed by a dunk by Thompson closed the open door.
"This was a total team effort tonight. Our returners remember what it was like to come all this way and lose last year and they were intent on it not happening again."
The Cajuns had a good shooting night, going 15-for-30 from the field in the second half (.500) to shoot .426 for the game (29-68) with seven treys. They were nine-for-11 from the line, most coming in the final minutes, and made a season-low seven turnovers.
The first half was fast-paced as both teams kept the tempo up.
The contest was tied at 2-2, 4-4 and 6-6 before the Cajuns ran off six straight points on baskets from Payton, Cornell Barnett and Thompson, to open a 12-6 lead at the 11:25 mark.
The lead would grow to as many as seven, 20-13, on a Thompson trey with 7:13 left.
A three-point play by Roger Franklin and a three-pointer by Williams would trim the lead to 20-19 (6:30), but the Mean Green could not tie the game or take the lead down the stretch as Louisiana led, 33-29, at halftime.
In other tournament action, No. 6 WKU routed ULM, 74-60, and No. 10 Troy upended No 7 Florida Atlantic, 81-79, in overtime.
The tournament continues on Saturday. No. 4 FIU takes on No. 5 UALR at 6:00 p.m. on the Convention Center Court, followed by No. 3 South Alabama against WKU at 8:30 p.m. Louisiana will take on top-seeded Middle Tennessee at 6:30 p.m. in Summit Arena with No. 2 Arkansas State meeting Troy at 9:00 p.m.