HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Alan-Michael Thompson led four Cajuns in double figures with 17 points but it was not enough as regular season champion Middle Tennessee eliminated the eight-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns in the quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt Conference championship, 81-66, on Saturday night in the Summit Arena.
The loss marks the end of the year for Louisiana, which went 13-20 in the third year under head coach Bob Marlin.
“I felt like we needed to bring our ‘A’ game tonight if we wanted to beat a team like Middle Tennessee,” Marlin said. “I thought we hung with them in the first half even though we weren’t making the plays or making the shots that we had over the last couple of weeks.
“We defended pretty hard tonight, especially in the first half. Then they came at us hard to start the second half and it allowed them to get a lead that we weren’t able to come back from.
Playing his final game in a Cajuns uniform, Thompson went six-for-12 from the field with four three-pointers to pace Louisiana. Elfrid Payton added 15 points and six assists and Bryant Mbamalu scored 14. Shawn Long finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Bruce Massey led Middle Tennessee with 15 points, helping the Blue Raiders win their 17th straight game and improve to 28-4 on the year. Raymond Cintron added 12 points and James Gallman 11.
After Thompson scored on a dunk with 17:35 left to make it a 41-38 game, Middle Tennessee went on an 11-2 spurt to push the lead to 12, 52-40 with 13:21 left.
The Blue Raiders took control minutes later when Cintron knocked down a trey to start a 9-2 run that gave MTSU a 66-46 lead with 9:35 left.
Louisiana would come as close as 14 points a couple of times down the stretch, but with the Blue Raiders playing a patient, time-consuming offense and going 31-for-39 from the foul line, the Cajuns never had an opportunity to piece together a strong enough comeback bid.
MTSU had a good game offensively, shooting .489 from the field (23-47) and .795 from the line while out-rebounding Louisiana, 36-27 and making just 10 turnovers.
The Cajuns end the year having won six of their last 11 games, a strong finish that Marlin took notice of.
“We knew going into the season that with just nine scholarship players on the team and five freshmen, that there was going to be a big learning curve for this team. We showed our youth early but as they gained experience, you could see this team come together.
“We played Middle Tennessee in late November in our first league game of the season and the team that took the court for us tonight looks nothing like that team.
“Tonight is sad because it was our last game with Mike (Thompson) but with rest of the team coming back and a strong recruiting class in place, we will be in a position to achieve more in the seasons to come,” Marlin added.
The first half was a physical one as 24 fouls were called between the two teams and 30 free throws were taken.
The Cajuns had leads of 3-2, on a Thompson trey at the 19:05 mark, and 5-4, on a Mbamalu basket, before the Blue Raiders ran off four straight to lead, 8-5 (17:20).
A pair of free throws by Long cut the deficit to 8-7 (18:51) but Massey scored in the lane and JT Sulton was fouled while dunking, converting the three-point play. A Knight layup extended the run to seven and gave Middle Tennessee a 15-7 lead (14:23).
The lead would grow to nine points on three occasions.
Trailing 23-14 with 10:04 left, the Cajuns scored seven of the next nine points, three coming at the foul line, to trail 25-21 with 7:29 left.
Massey scored again for the Blue Raiders before a three-pointer by Steven Wronkoski closed the gap to 27-24 with 6:14 left.
The first half then turned sour for Louisiana as Payton picked up his third foul, with the officials ruling it intentional. Massey made one of two free throws and Raymond Cintron knocked down a trey after the inbound to push the lead back to 31-24 (5:29).
Louisiana eventually trailed 34-25 (4:22) before Mbamalu scored five straight as part of a run that made it a 34-31 game with 1:45 left.
Middle Tennessee eventually led, 39-33 at half.