The Time Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns Men’s Basketball Team Nearly Stunned the Tennessee Volunteers in the NCAA Tournament
LAFAYETTE, La. (KPEL News) - As the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns basketball team gets ready to take on the Tennessee Volunteers in the NCAA Tournament's East Region, I'm reminded of the 1999-2000 basketball season and the Cajuns' appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Much like this year, the Cajuns entered the tournament as a 13 seed and the Volunteers entered as a 4 seed. Also, the Cajuns beat the South Alabama Jaguars in a thriller to win the Sun Belt Tournament Championship.
That 1999-2000 team started the season with a 6-5 record before catching fire and winning 16 of their next 19 games of the regular season. Two of those three losses came against South Alabama while the third loss was against the University of New Orleans. The Cajuns entered that tournament right behind South Alabama as the two teams seemed destined to play for the SBC Tournament Title.
After the Cajuns handily disposed UNO and Louisiana Tech, the matchup everyone was expecting happened - the Cajuns vs. the Jaguars. The game was a defensive slugfest that I'll always remember, especially how the game ended. Trailing by four points, the Cajuns scored the last five points of the game, as pointed out by espn.com. Lonnie Thomas hit a bank shot with 3.5 seconds to play as the Cajuns not only punched their ticket to March Madness but also beat their biggest rival when it mattered the most.
Then came the matchup against Tennessee. In addition to Thomas, the Cajuns had some memorable players - Blane Harmon, Orlando Butler, and Brett Smith, among others. As a young fan, I was so excited to see the matchup. Thomas led the team in steals, blocks, and field goal percentage; Harmon led the team in assists; and Butler was their best 3-point shooter. Butler and Harmon were 1 and 2 respectively in points scored.
I remember the game happening while I was at school on a Friday, so I taped the game so I could watch it later on. Of course, leaks of the score began to circle around, especially since the Cajuns led for most of the game. In the First Half, the Cajuns led the Volunteers by as many as 12 points.
As the game progressed, though, that impending sense of doom grew more and more as the Cajuns lead shrank and they seemed to be on the wrong end of the whistle. As this espn article points out, the Cajuns were called for 10 more fouls than Tennessee, who scored 23 of their 63 points from the free throw line. That's what kept Tennessee in the game, even after they took the lead for good with just over four minutes to play when a questionable reach-in foul kept the Cajuns from getting the ball back down 60-58 with 15 seconds left to play.
I just looked at the crowd and was like 'What just happened?'" said Brett Smith, who was called for the foul. "I couldn't have made that steal any cleaner than that."
The Cajuns went on to lose 63-58 as the Vols avoided "an embarrassing loss," said longtime ESPN College Basketball analyst Andy Katz.
I'll always remember this game as the one that got away. Hopefully, this 13-4 seed matchup will end with the Cajuns being the team that moves on.