Cajuns clinch share of SBC West title

by Leslie Turk

On Saturday the Cajun basketball team turned a 3-14 start into an 11-game winning streak, clinching a share of the West Division Sun Belt Conference title.

Ragin' Cajun basketball players and fans got a glimpse Saturday night of where they were not too long ago - about five weeks ago, to be exact.

The Cajun squad locked up a share of the Sun Belt Conference's West Division in Monroe Saturday, turning on the cruise control and rolling to a 61-46 victory over state rival UL Monroe in a game that was never in doubt after halftime.

In the process, UL won its 11th straight game, still the second-longest win streak in the country, and its 10th straight conference victory. And that league streak both began and ended with wins over the in-state Warhawks.

But the differences in Saturday's game and the 84-75 Cajun win over ULM back on Jan. 22 were obvious to the delegation of Cajun fans that made Saturday's trip north. The announced crowd was 1,633, but actual attendance was more like 800 and nearly half wore red in two pie-shaped sections of an otherwise-empty Fant-Ewing Coliseum.

"The crowd was electric for the entire 40 minutes of play," read a line from Sunday's Monroe News-Star. "The only problem was it wasn't ULM's crowd that was doing the cheering. Instead, it was the cluster of red"

UL fans can sympathize with the plight of a Warhawk team that is 2-14 in the league and 7-23 overall. They were right there back in January; or, perhaps, they weren't there, since the Cajundome was an empty cavern most of that month. After all, the Cajuns were 3-14 with six weeks remaining.

The Cajuns took a win over outmanned Centenary before the first win over ULM, which maybe not by coincidence came on Reunion Weekend where many former USL/UL players and coaches gathered. But that win made the Cajuns only 5-14, and even the most optimistic of fans couldn't have expected what's happened since.

"To go from 3-14 to 14-14 is a pretty good story," said coach Bob Marlin, who is rapidly becoming a master of the understatement during the second-longest win streak in school history. The last time a Cajun team won this many in a row, Bo Lamar and Roy Ebron were racing from end to end at Blackham Coliseum.

Back in January, most Cajun fans expected their team to wind up a lot like the Warhawks have. ULM would have ended its regular-season on an 11-game loss streak had it not been for a surprising win at North Texas last week, and the Warhawks have the league's worst record both overall and in conference play.

First-year ULM coach Keith Richard - one of college basketball's good guys, and not because he's a south Louisiana native and has family in Lafayette - was just like Marlin to start the season. He took over the Warhawks too late to do much in recruiting, and he readily admits that this year's ULM team is a long way from solid.

"I came here to make this program better," Richard said after Saturday's game. "Obviously, as you watched this game tonight, we have a long way to go. There's a distinct difference in talent in that team and our team."

A lot of of the credit for that should go to the man sitting next to Richard on the ULM bench Robert Lee, whose six-year run as Cajun head coach and 14-year run on the Cajun staff ended after last season. Lee recruited most of the players on the UL bench, but as it often happens, it took a change in leadership to kick-start those talents and abilities.

Richard and Lee will win at ULM as soon as the returning and new players buy into their system, just like the Cajun players had to do with Marlin. And Richard need only point south, to show his crew how quickly things can turn around.