The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns are heading to their 10th NCAA Tournament after an exhilarating come-from-behind 82-81 overtime win over the Georgia State Panthers in the Sun Belt Championship game at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
The Cajuns tied the game in the closing seconds thanks to two huge rebounds and a very heady assist by star post player Shawn Long. With 15 seconds to play and Georgia St leading 72-70, Ryan Harrow missed a jumper late in the shot clock. Long grabbed the defensive rebound and the Cajuns started up the court. Co-star Elfrid Payton penetrated and tried a difficult runner that missed, but Long grabbed an impressive offensive rebound in traffic with five seconds to play. He didn't panic and rush a put back, instead he found teammate Bryant Mbamalu, who had just stood up after falling down during the rebound scrum for a wide open lay-in with just over a second to play. After a timeout, GSU successfully threw a long inbound pass to Manny Atkins, but he went to the ground after minimal contact and the Panthers never got a shot off.
In the overtime, GSU struck the first blow when R.J. Hunter ripped a big defensive rebound away from Long, then nailed a long three pointer on the other end for a 77-74 Panthers lead. After a Payton basket made it 77-76, Louisiana-Lafayette got a pair of huge defensive plays that turned the game in their favor for good. Hunter poked the ball away from Payton for a steal and the Panthers would have had a fast break basket, but the pass attempt up the court was tipped by Elridge Moore and intercepted by Payton. On the ensuing possession Payton was fouled. After missing his first four free throw attempts in the game, Payton nailed two to give the Cajuns a 78-77 lead with 1:13 to play. On the next GSU possession, Payton poked the ball away from Davonta White for a steal at the top of the key and raced the length of the court for a layup and an 80-77 Cajuns lead with 44 seconds to play.
GSU's Ryan Harrow converted a pair of free throws and a layup around a pair of Xavian Rimmer free throws to make the score 82-81 Cajuns with 22 seconds to play. Rimmer then missed the front end of a one-and-one giving the Panthers the ball with 19 seconds left. GSU got the ball to Harrow, who drove to the right of the lane where he was strongly contested by Moore and the Cajuns forcing a miss. Moore grabbed the rebound as time expired.
It was a heartbreaking finish for Harrow, who completely dominated the game for Georgia State. The transfer from Kentucky scored 37 points and was completely un-guardable for everyone in a Cajuns uniform, including Payton who was deservedly the Sun Belt's Defensive Player of the Year. Harrow had his own personal 8-0 run which stretched the GSU lead to 66-55 with 5:19 to play. Inexplicably, though, Georgia State decided to run clock just about every possession from that point forward which resulted in just six Panthers points the rest of the half opening the door for the Cajuns remarkable comeback.
For the Cajuns, it was a pair of role players that really made this win possible. First, we've already mentioned Xavian Rimmer. The junior from Piney Woods, MS scored a career-high 27 points, including making 7-of-12 three point attempts. The other was Bryant Mbamalu. In addition to the game-tying basket in the final seconds of regulation, the senior scored nine other second half points including a few baskets between the 15:00 and 10:00 minute marks that kept the Cajuns in striking distance and allowed them to withstand the Harrow outburst and still be close enough to rally.
In the end, though, the game became all about the Cajuns star duo. Shawn Long made the biggest plays of the game in the final 15 seconds, but he also had a pretty huge stat line despite battling foul trouble. He scored 11 points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds before fouling out during the overtime period. Elfrid Payton, meanwhile, made up for a largely quiet game (for his standards) with a dominant finish. He ended up with 19 points, six assists, and four boards. Eleven of those points came in the final 2:58 of regulation and overtime.
With the supporting cast playing well down the stretch this season, the Cajuns ended the year winners in 11 of their final 13 games. Along with the star duo of Payton and Long, the Cajuns enter the NCAA Tournament as a very dangerous team to play.