Russell, Cajuns look forward to Arkansas State rematch
The last time Marquis Eaton and Arkansas State were in town, he went at it with Cedric Russell and the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Eaton, the Sun Belt Conference’s No. 14 scoring leader at 13.5 points per game, wound up with a game-high 28 points in that one back on Feb. 26 at the Cajundome.
But Russell and the Cajuns had the last laugh, as Russell — the Sun Belt’s No. 10 scorer at 14.2 ppg — finished with 22 including a big, late pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key over Eaton with 41 seconds left to go ahead for good and two free throw makes to seal it with 18 seconds remaining in a 77-74 UL win over the Red Wolves.
The Cajuns rallied from 14 points down in the first half for the victory.
Now, a week-and-a-half later, the two will have another go — and this time the stakes are much higher.
UL, the No. 8 seed, will play host to No. 9 seed Arkansas State in a first-round Sun Belt Tournament game at the Cajundome scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday.
The winner advances to visit No. 5 seed Georgia Southern on Monday night, and the loser is done.
For Russell, the rematch with Arkansas State — which beat UL in Jonesboro 79-67 in December — so soon is fraught with potential peril the Cajuns must guard against.
“Me and (teammate) P.J. (Hardy) were just talking: The scariest team is a beaten team,” Russell said. “We found that out last season against South Al.”
'IT'S GONNA BE FUN'
After UL beat South Alabama in the only regular-season meeting between the two teams in the 2018-19 season, the Jaguars got revenge with a 70-69 second-round Sun Belt tourney win over the Cajuns last March that ended with Russell missing a trey try at the buzzer at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
“So it’s gonna be fun,” Russell said, “but, again, we’ve got to win.”
Seeing Arkansas State in the same building just last week should help the Cajuns, senior shooting guard Hardy suggested.
“I feel like everybody’s pretty familiar,” he said, “so I feel like the game plan will be kind of the same.”
Which means not being afraid to take the ball to the basket, even if Arkansas State is a good bit bigger, in order to open things up on the perimeter for shooters like Hardy and Russell.
“But, like (Russell) was saying,” Hardy said, “it’s hard to beat a team twice in a short period of time, so it will be interesting going in, but it will be fun knowing we’ll get their best shot.”
Then there’s the matter of UL's matchup with third team All-Sun Belt pick Eaton.
Last time around, Russell hit the big 3 and made the two key late free throws to seal the win on a night Hardy, who has spent some time defensively on Eaton in the past, also hit 6-of-12 trey tries.
Afterward, Russell, a junior guard from Peabody Magnet High in Alexandria, expressed his respect for Eaton, a junior from Jonesboro High in Helena, Arkansas, and the Red Wolves’ top scorer this season.
“Me and Eaton, we’ve got a good enough relationship to (where) it’s fun to compete against each other,” said Russell, who is UL’s No. 2 scorer behind junior forward Jalen Johnson (15.3 ppg, sixth-best in the Sun Belt).
“He came in the same year I came, and … it’s been some battles the last three years,” Russell added. “He’s a good player.”
'EATON'S REALLY GOOD'
Now, then, it boils down to a matter who will have more fun Saturday.
UL coach Bob Marlin — whose 13-18 Cajuns used 16 made 3-pointers to beat Coastal Carolina 108-101 Tuesday night at the Cajundome and win tie-breakers with Arkansas State and Coastal, giving the Cajuns the No. 8 seed and Saturday’s home game — hopes it’s his guys.
He also knows it could come down, in large part, to how Russell fares with Eaton, who had Cajuns backup point guard Trajan Wesley guarding as well for a spell in the last meeting between the two teams.
When the two met in December, and Arkansas State won, Russell scored a team-high 16 but Eaton had a game-high 24.
On Tuesday night, when Arkansas State beat Georgia Southern 76-75 in its regular-season to snap an eight-game losing streak, Eaton scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half.
He knocked down a 3-pointer to pull the Red Wolves to within one with 22 seconds to go, then made a layup with seven seconds left to put Arkansas State up 74-73 before Christian Willis won with it two last-second freebies.
“We know Eaton’s really good,” said Marlin, who compared the Arkansas State guard to Coastal Carolina’s DeVonte Jones, the Sun Belt’s No. 4 scorer at 16.4 points per game, trailing only Texas State’s Nijal Pearson (19.3), Appalachian State’s Justin Forrest (17.3) and Little Rock’s Markquis Nowell (17.2).
“We told the guys (Tuesday) that DJ (Jones) is gonna get by you, and snake the ball screen, and put his body on you, the same way Eaton did.
“They’ve got a good team,” Marlin added with reference to the Red Wolves, “and they’ve got size inside.”
PLAYING 'AT THE CRIB'
What Arkansas State won’t have, however, is the homecourt Saturday, which is precisely what Russell wanted so much this week.
The motivating factor behind Tuesday’s win over Coastal Carolina, in fact, boiled down to this, according to Russell: “We’ve got to stay at the crib.”
And while the Red Wolves may have Eaton, what they don’t have is a guard playing in the Cajundome with as much confidence as combo Russell has been lately.
“He’s done a good job with the ball, especially in the halfcourt,” Marlin said of his usual floor leader. “He does a real nice job of running our offense and settling us down.
“You know, he had it in his hand (Tuesday) and he made big play after big play. … Cedric has definitely grown up and matured.”
In the high-scoring win over Coastal Carolina, Russell scored a game-high 28 points and made 9-of-10 free throws.
“He’s the oldest guy out there besides P.J. (Hardy) and (walk-on senior) Mason (Aucoin) that have been around and understand what we need to do late in the basketball game,” Marlin said.
“Usually we’d have the ball in Mylik (Wilson’s) hand or Trajan (Wesley’s) hand (late), but Cedric is certainly very dependable in that situation, and you know he’s going to make his free throws.”
RAGIN’ CAJUNS BASKETBALL
UL (13-18, 8-12 in the Sun Belt) vs. Arkansas State (16-15, 8-12)
WHAT: First-round Sun Belt Tournament game
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
RADIO: KPEL 96.5 FM with Steve Peloquin
UL LEADERS: Jalen Johnson (15.3 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game), Cedric Russell (14.2 ppg), Mylik Wilson (11.4 ppg, 2.9 assists per game), P.J. Hardy (11.1 ppg)