Then the Ragin’ Cajuns made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 15 seconds to capture a hard fought 80-76 win in a Sun Belt West battle with North Texas here Saturday evening at The Super Pit.
Wronkoski’s lone trey of the night pulled Louisiana (3-5, 1-1 Sun Belt) ahead 73-71. Following back to-back defensive stops, which preserved the lead, Elfrid Payton, former Morgan City star Shawn Long and Bryant Mbamalu connected on six free throw attempts to put away the Mean Green (3-5, 0-1 Sun Belt), spoiling the host’s final Sun Belt Conference opener.
A three-point play from Chris Jones with four seconds left pulled the Mean Green within one, 77-76. Mbamalu stepped to the line for the first time in the contest, with 3.4 showing, and drained both shots.
Elridge Moore captured a steal on the length-of-the-court inbounds pass by the Mean Green and hit one of two free throw tries for the final margin.
In a classic Ragin’ Cajuns-Mean Green battle, there were 15 ties and 15 lead changes. And for the fourth straight meeting, the final margin was four points or less.
A career-high 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting by Long, a season-high 19 points that included a 5-of-5 showing from three-point range from Mbalamu combined with a career-high tying nine assists by Payton led Louisiana to its fourth consecutive regular season win against North Texas.
It was Louisiana’s first road win of the season and brought an end to a three-game losing streak.
Mbamalu’s season-high five treys highlighted a 9-of-18 showing from beyond the arc for the Cajuns, who outscored the Mean Green 27-12 from three-point land.
Chris Jones paced the Mean Green with 23 points, 10 coming from the free throw line.
Louisiana’s defense continued to stymie North Texas’ All-American candidate, Tony Mitchell, holding him to only one field goal attempt and three points and four rebounds. The Cajuns held Mitchell to single digits for the third time in four meetings.
Louisiana takes a week-long break from action as the university administers final exams Monday-Friday.
The next outing takes place at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles against Interstate 10 rival McNeese State on Saturday.
Tipoff in Lake Charles is set for 7 p.m.
The Mean Green used a 6-1 rebounding edge at the onset of the second half, limiting the Cajuns to just three shot attempts and opened a 50-44 lead.
With 15:16 remaining, Long completed an old-fashioned three-point play, and on the next Cajuns touch, Payton scored a layup to slice the Mean Green’s advantage to 50-49 with 14:26 remaining.
Long converted a three-point play at 13:10 to put the Cajuns head 52-50. The back-and-forth play ensued with the teams swapping baskets until a Jordan Williams layup put North Texas in front 57-55 at 11:29.
The nip-and-tuck play continued the rest of the contest with the lead changing nine times and neither team grabbing an advantage greater than four points, that coming after Payton’s two free throws with 15.3 seconds remaining.
After North Texas shot 52 percent (15-of-29) in the opening stanza, the Cajuns defense held the hosts to 39 percent (11-of-28) in the final 20 minutes. Louisiana had just 17 shot attempts after halftime but connected on 10 (58 percent) and outscored the Mean Green 16-13 from the charity stripe.
Louisiana improved to 4-1 against the Mean Green in Sun Belt regular season games under Bob Marlin’s direction.
In the final Sun Belt meeting with North Texas in Denton, the Cajuns made it back-to-back wins at The Super Pit for the first time since meetings in 1999 and 2001.