Mar 15, 2014 11:51 PM by UL Sports Information
NEW ORLEANS - Don't blame senior Bryant Mbamalu for being greedy. After all, he and the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns basketball team are one win away from returning to the NCAA Championships.
Mbamalu scored 18 of his 23 points in the first half and came up with a late rebound on a potential go-ahead basket in the final minute as the Ragin' Cajuns edged two-time defending tournament champion WKU, 73-72, in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Basketball Tournament at Lakefront Arena.
Elfrid Payton scored 23 points, including a go-ahead bucket with 1:16 remaining, as third-seeded Louisiana (22-11) advanced to face top-seeded Georgia State (25-7) for the Sun Belt Conference championship at noon on Sunday. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
"Yes, one game to go," Mbamalu, one of three seniors for the Ragin' Cajuns said. "By God's grace, if we win, we go dancing, but it (could be) my last game of my career. I just want to play as well as I can and help the team in whatever way I can."
Louisiana built a 10-point lead after a steal and dunk by Payton gave the Ragin' Cajuns a 65-55 lead with 5:42 remaining in the game before second-seeded WKU (20-12) fought back. The Hilltoppers went on a 15-4 run with freshman Chris Harrison-Docks sinking a 3-pointer for a 70-69 lead with 2:48 remaining.
WKU added free throws by Trency Jackson and George Fant to take a 72-69 lead with 2:09 remaining before the Ragin' Cajuns reclaimed the lead for good.
Payton, who finished 11-for-15 from the floor, scored on a jumper in the lane that cut the lead to 72-71 with 1:49 left before a missed layup by Harrison-Docks and a two missed free throws by O'Karo Akamune gave the Cajuns an opportunity to regain the lead.
Going against the Hilltoppers' halfcourt defense, Payton drove the lane and scored with 1:16 remaining to give Louisiana a 73-72 lead.
"Bryant kept telling me to be aggressive," Payton said, "and once we thought once we past their initial press that their back line wasn't that strong and we were able to get a few baskets down the middle of the lane."
And then, a pair of the Ragin' Cajuns three seniors combined for a key defensive stop.
The Hilltoppers worked the ball inside to Fant, who scored 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting, but his jumper was blocked by New Orleans native Elridge Moore with Mbamalu scooping up the rebound.
"We just wanted to be aggressive," Mbamalu said. "We knew that they were going to make a run. They've won this tournament the past two years, so we knew that they weren't going to lie down. I told Elfrid and I told everyone that you need to stay locked in, aggressive, and stay in attack mode."
After a missed jumper by Payton gave WKU one more chance to win, Payton forced a bad shot by T.J. Price and the Gretna, La., native grabbed the game-clinching rebound, sending Louisiana to its first Sun Belt championship game since 2005.
"It's a one possession game," head coach Bob Marlin said. "We've played so many of these close games that we feel like we can come back and play and win them. (Elfrid) is the best penetrator in the league, and when he can get to the basket, we feel like we are always in the game."
The Cajuns shot 29-for-55 (52.7 percent) from the floor against the Hilltoppers, including a 17-for-29 performance (58.6 percent) in the first half. Shawn Long scored nine points for the Cajuns while Moore added eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
"Elfrid's going to have the ball, he knows that," Marlin said. "He's dead tired, but he made enough plays to get us to this stage, and we're going to rest with him. There's no one else I'd rather have going down the stretch than him.
"Elridge Moore was huge for us. He got a lot of offensive rebounds for us and did some big things for us in the second half. J.J. Davenport came in and hit a couple of shots, made a couple of free throws, and made some big plays for us as well."
Price added 16 points off the bench for WKU, playing in its final game as a Sun Belt Conference member before joining Conference USA this summer. Brandon Harris added 11 points off the bench for the Hilltoppers while Harrison-Docks scored all nine of his points in the second half.