Feb. 18, 2011 04:34

Four weeks ago, the question was whether UL's basketball team would win another game this season. Now, the question is whether the Ragin' Cajuns can win the Sun Belt Conference championship, and make the most unlikely of appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

It's not that far-fetched, now that the Cajuns have extended the nation's fifth-longest winning streak to eight games. UL made it an elite eight Thursday night at the Cajundome with a 64-61 win over Arkansas State.

More importantly, the victory gave UL seven straight conference wins, the longest such streak in the league, and pulled them within one game of the Sun Belt's West Division lead. The Cajuns (11-14, 8-5) trail only Denver (9-4) in the West, and the Pioneers are at the 'Dome next Thursday in a home finale that will likely determine seeding for the league tournament.

And right now, nobody else in the Sun Belt wants to play a Cajun team that was 3-14 more than halfway through January.

UL basketball fans were prepared to give first-year coach Bob Marlin a "hall pass" for the 2010-11 season, after he inherited a struggling program when he took the job last March and missed an entire recruiting season. And his team needed it four weeks ago when they stood at 1-5 in league play with only a home win over Troy halting a winless league season.

Now Marlin and his squad have the rest of the Sun Belt "Fearing the Beard," a salute to the facial follicles of several of the Cajun players - most notably freshman and Opelousas product J. J. Thomas. Saturday night's now-huge game against Western Kentucky, in fact, is "Fear the Beard" night, with all fans - men and women - wearing either natural or fake beards eligible for discounted tickets.

It hasn't been facial hair that's been the keys to the turnaround. Instead, it's been two hallmarks of successful post-season teams - defense and free throws.

The Cajuns have made a quantum leap forward defensively since the start of the season, and Thursday's game was a good example. UL held ASU to single-digit points through the first 15 minutes, and the visiting Red Wolves were well under 40 percent from the field until hitting four of their last six shots.

"If you're going to play and win in March, you've got to make stops," Marlin said after the game. "We've been able to do that a lot in these last few games."

The Cajuns have also made teams pay for sending them to the free throw line. UL made its last 12 free throws against Florida International in a 72-68 win in Miami last Thursday, and then went 16-for-16 - tying a school record - in last Saturday's 72-64 victory over a Florida Atlantic team that had - and still has - the Sun Belt's best overall record.

They missed four times (8-of-12) in the first half Thursday night against ASU, but then went 15-for-15 in the second half. Four different players - La'Ryan Gary, Raymone Andrews, Randell Daigle and Thomas - each hit two free throws in the final three minutes as the Cajuns broke loose from a 58-all tie with 1:16 left.

UL has made 51 of its last 55 free throws over that three-game stretch. That'll win a lot of close games for you, and that's what's happened. The biggest margin of victory in the seven straight conference wins has been nine points.

"We're playing with a lot of confidence," said senior Travis Bureau, who had a game-high 12 rebounds in support of Thomas' 20-point effort Thursday. "When you play with confidence, good things happen at the end."

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