UT Arlington dug itself into a hole and couldn’t recover in an 81-70 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette that opened up the race for a Sun Belt tournament first-round bye.
The Mavericks fell behind by 14 points early and allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns (16-12, 10-7) to split the season series and take a half-game lead over UTA for fourth place with four to play.
Baskets were hard to come by for the Mavericks (15-11, 9-7), who couldn’t get anything to fall early. They missed their first eight shots and made just one of their first 16 to fall behind 21-7.
“Our guys backed down a little bit,” coach Scott Cross said. “They were the tougher, more aggressive team.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t do them any favors, draining six 3-pointers and shooting 58 percent in the first half. UTA was fortunate to reach a 17 percent clip before the break, and their 16 free throws held the deficit to 13 at halftime.
Shawn Long, the Sun Belt’s leading rebounder, complemented his stalwart defensive presence with a 21-point, 15-rebound effort. He teamed with Hayward Register, who scored 15 points on five 3-pointers, to throttle the Mavericks.
“We didn’t have anybody who could contend with Shawn Long,” Cross said. “He absolutely dominated us.”
The closest the Mavericks came was a couple of eight-point deficits, but Lafayette responded with quick buckets on both occasions to quell any comeback.
Erick Neal found success running the UTA offense by working with Jamel Outler, and the duo finished with 16 points apiece. But it wasn’t enough to cut into the lead.
Never mind the first-round bye. Being without two pivotal players for the rest of the season and with three of their last four games on the road, UTA’s path to the Sun Belt tournament is now murkier than ever.