More reason to 'fear the beard'

by Leslie Turk

Maybe the Sun Belt Conference's basketball teams do, indeed, fear the beard.

It's a sure bet that none of the league teams want anything to do with UL's men's basketball bunch right now, especially when it's at home in the Cajundome.

The Ragin' Cajuns won their ninth straight game Saturday the second-longest winning streak among the country's 340 Division I teams and gave the 7,071 fans on hand their biggest emotional charge of a 2010-11 season that may be ending too soon.

This time, they beat a Western Kentucky team that, despite its break-even record, is still the measuring stick for Sun Belt excellence over the past half-decade. The fact that the Cajuns held off the Hilltopper charge and won 67-64 was a testament to how far the UL team has come over the past two months.

It's hard to remember that the Cajuns were 3-14 just over a month ago, and since then haven't lost. Saturday's victory was their eighth in Sun Belt play, and now the only thing between UL and a West Division title is a Thursday home game against Denver currently the West leader by a game, but a team that has struggled to win on the road and a Saturday road finale at UL Monroe a team that's last in the league with a 2-13 conference record.

Only George Mason (13 straight wins) boasts a longer win streak in NCAA play.

UL assistant Kevin Johnson doesn't hesitate to give credit where it's deserved.

"It tells you something about the guys. It's all because of them that we're doing this," Johnson says. "Sometimes all it takes is just getting that one win. That can start building confidence, and that's what these guys are doing now. They're playing with confidence every time they go on the court, they expect to win now."

No one expects to win more than freshman J.J. Thomas, who struggled to find a proper fit during a high school career that had him at three different schools. Now he's the darling of the Cajundome's suddenly-rabid student section, in part because of the thick beard that makes him appear much older than his 18 years, and in part for his never-back-down  playing style.

"We just fight hard," the 6-foot-5 Thomas said after putting down 25 points against a taller WKU front line. "Having this winning streak is really keeping us going."

Thomas had 15 points in the first half and 13 in the first eight minutes as the Cajuns led by as many as 17 before the Hilltoppers rallied. It's been standard procedure for UL to go through several minutes of offensive struggles even during the win streak, and Western used that to put together a 21-4 run and tie the game at 49 with nine minutes left.

But UL never fell behind against a WKU team that had won eight of its last 10 games and hadn't lost to the Cajuns since the 2004-05 season. Every time the 'Toppers threatened, the Cajuns responded, much to the delight of the fans showing up to make the Dome a true college basketball atmosphere. That's been sorely missing over the past several seasons, but now those fans have a rallying cry.

Many even UL President Joe Savoie sported beards Saturday as part of "Fear the Beard" night when anyone sporting a beard received a discounted ticket. Savoie's was fake, as were most in the arena, but there was nothing fake about the noise level over the final few minutes on Saturday.