LAFAYETTE — Elfrid Payton scored 16 points, including the game-winning basket with 5.2 seconds left, as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette held the Florida Atlantic Owls scoreless for the last 3:35 of the game in a 58-57 Cajuns’ win in the Cajundome Saturday.
The win improved the Cajuns to 10-17 on the year and 6-10 in Sun Belt play, good for third place in the west division, while Florida Atlantic slipped to 12-16 overall and 7-10 in league action.
“This was a great win for us tonight,” Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin said in a university release following Saturday’s game. “We weren’t at our best, and the guys we normally rely on didn’t have their normal performances, but we still got the win. That is a great sign as post-season play approaches.”
After Louisiana controlled play for the game’s first 33 minutes, leading by as many 10 points in the second half at 38-28 with 14:37 remaining in the ball game, Florida Atlantic battled back to tie game at 46 with 8:09 remaining.
Louisiana took the lead right back on an Alan-Michael Thompson basket, but the Owls ran off nine straight points, including five by Greg Gantt, to take a 55-50 lead with 4:25 left.
The Cajuns answered with a basket by Payton but Gantt knocked down a jumper to put the lead to 57-52 with 3:35 left.
Those were the final points that the Owl scored as FAU missed its final four field goal attempts, one free throw attempt and turned the ball over twice to open the door for the Cajuns.
The comeback for the Cajuns started with a pair of Bryant Mbamalu free throws with 3:15 left to make it a three-point game. Payton made two more charity tosses with 34 seconds left to make it a 57-56 game.
Forced to foul, the Ragin’ Cajuns sent Pablo Bertone to the line for a one-and-one with 20 seconds left, but the Owl junior missed the first free throw and Shawn Long grabbed the rebound.
Following a Cajun timeout with 14 seconds left, Payton controlled the ball at the top of the key and penetrated down the right side, looked to Long on the low blocks before banking in an acrobatic six-footer with 5.2 seconds left to give Louisiana the lead.
Florida Atlantic came back quickly with Gantt dribbling down the left side until Payton came from behind to knock the ball loose and out of bounds off Gantt with 0.6 seconds left to secure the win and make his fifth steal of the game.
“Elfrid made a couple of nice plays,” Marlin said. “We wanted the ball in his hands late in the game because his quickness allows him to get past his defender and into the lane where he can create things. It looked like he was going to pass the ball before he shot it, but he thought twice and took the shot. He hadn’t had his normal shooting night, but he made it when it counted.
“Not only did Elfrid make the shot, but he had the presence to not celebrate and get back defensively to make the defensive play. That’s the sign of a leader,” Marlin added.
Long led four Cajuns in double figures with 16 points and eight rebounds, while Payton added 14, Thompson 13 and Mbamalu 10. Gantt led the Owls with 18 points, but went six-for-24 from the field, while Bertone came off the bench to added 13 points. Jordan McCoy scored eight points with 17 rebounds, the most by a Louisiana opponent this year.
“Our goal going into the game was to try and take the three-point line away from Gantt,” Marlin said. “Elfrid did a great job of bottling him up and not giving him any good looks.”
Gantt started the game by missing his first 14 field goal attempts.
After playing just four minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, Long started the second half by scoring the first 13 points for the Cajuns, going three-for-three from three-point range. He added three blocks in the game to raise his season total to 53 and move into sixth place on the Louisiana single season block list.
Payton made a pair of three-pointers in the game but was an uncharacteristic three-for-11 on two-pointers.
Still, he added eight rebounds, five assists and five steals in the contest. He now has 65 steals this year to move into sixth place on the single-season steal list.
Despite finishing in double figures in scoring, Mbamalu didn’t have the shooting night that had made him one of the hottest players in the Sun Belt. He missed all six of his three-point attempts but went four-for-five on two-pointers with a pair of free throws.
The Cajuns had another good night taking care of the ball, committing just nine turnovers for their fourth game of 10 or less this year. During the last five games, Louisiana is averaging just 10.8 turnovers a game.
With Alan-Michael Thompson scoring nine of Louisiana’s first 14 points, the Cajuns jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 14-7 at the 13:05 mark.
The Cajuns opened up a 22-14 advantage on a three-pointer by Payton with 6:29 left before Florida Atlantic ran off six straight points, four coming at the foul line, to close to within 22-20 with 4:54 left.
That was as close as the Owls would come in the first half as Mbamalu scored in transition off a nice pass from Payton. Payton converted his second trey of the game, and Wronkoski added a pair of free throws to let the Cajuns open up a 29-20 lead at the 3:50 mark.
The lead would stay at nine at halftime, 31-22, as both teams only could score two points down the stretch.
Louisiana would maintain the lead, extending the margin to 10 at 38-28 with 14:37 left before Florida Atlantic would mount a comeback.
The Cajuns played most of the first half without Long, who left the game after picking up his second personal foul with 16:08 left to play and did not return until the second half.
The Cajuns remain at home this week to close out the 2012-13 home schedule with games against Troy Thursday at 7 p.m. and WKU Saturday at 7:30 p.m.