Sonuva gun we're gonna have big fun on the Bayou," Hank Williams sang 20 years ago, and that was remarkable because the Ragin' Cajuns of the University of Southwestern Louisiana weren't at all good then. They were not notorious, either, not the way they will be before this basketball season ends. The Cajuns operate out of Lafayette, La., the capital of the Bayou country, and for their mad followers they are a sort of Mardi Gras in sneakers. For the people who have to play them, another word with local flavor might be more descriptive: the word is pirates. The Cajuns throw up an intimidating front line, then send smallish Guard Dwight (Bo Pete) Lamar running around behind it with the ball. He fires away at will and, as the good folks say, "Laissez le bon ton roulet," which is Cajun French for "Let the good times roll."
The good times rolled plenty last week when three other big, bad dudes—Long Beach State, Texas-El Paso and Pan American—made the mistake of joining Southwestern in the 11th annual Bayou classic. Pan Am had 6'10" John Perry, the school's finest player since Luke Jackson. UTEP, which was matched against Long Beach in the opening game, came to town with Coach Don Haskins moaning about his team's lack of size and experience, but everyone knew that the Miners still played the toughest defense in the Southwest. As for Long Beach, what can be said about a team that has six pro prospects, led by 6'6" Ed Ratleff. "I just hope we're not a fraud," said Coach. Jerry Tarkanian.
Going into the tournament the three visiting clubs had one thing in common. They were unbeaten. Southwestern, unaccountably, had lost its opener to Eastern Kentucky 105-99 on the road. But that was only a small oversight. The Cajuns, playing as a major college for the first time this season, redeemed themselves on the Monday before the classic, ripping highly regarded Houston 97-88 at home. They led by as many as 18 points and Lamar gunned in 41. "Yeah," he said, "it was a bad night." Lamar, it seems, was not hitting the long, looping jumpers that he customarily makes from somewhere deep in the bleachers.
The first game on Friday night was no preparation for what soon would follow. The outcome really wasn't settled until, 51 seconds from the end, 5'9" Beto (Taco) Bautista, the UTEP floor leader, was whistled for walking. Ratleff then dribbled through all the Miners and got the basket that broke the game open. Long Beach winning 74-64. "He's the one who killed us," said Haskins as he wiped his perspiring red face with a towel. Haskins also had kind words for Long Beach's 6'11" Nate Stephens, whose 14 rebounds helped the 49ers to an overpowering 58-29 edge. Haskins and Stephens are old friends, having first met in El Paso, Nate's home town. Indeed, UTEP is one of the six schools Stephens has attended in his dogged pursuit of a higher education.
And then it was time for the Ragin' Cajuns, who, in a sense, are the perfect team for Lafayette, which may be the No. 1 fun city in the nation (69,000 class). The townspeople, who remind you that their Acadian country was a setting for Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline with such commemorative monuments as the Evangeline Hair Salon, the Evangeline Trailer Park and Evangeline Downs thoroughbred racing track, like gumbo, black cajun coffee, hot pants, all-night bars, crawfish, swamps, rednecks, politics and, of course, Southwestern and Bo Pete Lamar, a Western movies buff. Bo Pete's favorite is The Wild Bunch, and on Friday against Pan American, he came out with all guns blazing. Southwestern'? first half offense, in fact, consisted of two plays: Lamar firing and, lamentably, missing from 30 feet while Roy Ebron, the Cajuns' superlative 6'9" sophomore center, quietly policed up the scene with his neat rebounds; and, play No. 2, one of the Cajuns' three big men—Ebron, 6'8" Wilbert Loftin or 6'7" Fred Saunders—getting a rebound and firing a half-court pass to Lamar, who then soared off on one of his sky-hanging, dipsy-doodle moves that end in easy baskets. Lamar idolizes Earl the Pearl Monroe and, like Monroe, he almost never heads straight for the basket if there is a chance to double-pump or put the ball between his legs before letting it fly. Every Cajun fan remembers the time last season when he went up, pirouetted in the air and hit a 20-foot jumper. The defensive man, according to the legend, ran off the floor and straight to the locker room.
At the end of the wild, sloppy game that Southwestern won 102-83, Ebron had 25 points and nine rebounds, while Perry, battling manfully through an average evening, scored 23 and got 10 rebounds. Lamar had only 23 points, 14 fewer than he usually gets, and some of these were a gift from his coach, Beryl Shipley. Suspecting perhaps that Lamar was pressing too hard, Shipley let him play the last five minutes despite the runaway, hoping he might find himself. Lamar was dejected when it was all over. "I thought I was five for 105," he said morosely. "I don't know what's wrong, but tomorrow I'm going to come over here and shoot until I find out."
On Saturday night the only people in the near-capacity crowd of 8,000 cheering for Long Beach were several gentlemen from, of all places, East High School in Columbus, Ohio, which is not as strange as it might at first seem. Ratleff and Lamar both went to East High. As seniors in 1968 they took their team to the Ohio state AAA high school championship with a 25-0 record, so the school's onetime principal, the present assistant principal and track coach came to Lafayette to see the showdown between the two, who still are good enough friends that they can kid each other and no blood is spilled. Well, almost no blood.
"Eddie looks just like he did in high school," said Lamar.
"Yeah, Bo hasn't changed either," said Ratleff. "Still shooting all the time."
The Cajuns came out with a 1-3-1 trap—exactly what Tarkanian had been expecting—and the 49ers tore into it like it was just so much gumbo. With Ratleff bringing the ball up the floor, then kicking it off to either Chuck Terry or Lamont King in the corners, the 49ers hit a smashing 68% of their shots in the first half and went to the dressing room with a 41-36 lead. Meanwhile, the Cajuns were hitting only 37.1 against Tarkanian's switching defenses. And Lamar, continuing to miss his long bombs, sunk but six of his 18 shots. But Long Beach was paying a stiff" price for its efficiency, with two of its big men in foul trouble. To protect them, Tarkanian went into a stall late on in the period and the crowd began to chant something that sounded suspiciously like "Go to hell, Long Beach, go to hell." The fact is, that is what they yelled.
In the second half the Cajuns switched to a man-to-man defense and the 49ers' big men, in Tarkanian's words, "were so afraid of fouling out that they just stood around." Ebron, Loftin and Saunders began to control the boards, and more importantly, Lamar finally regained his shooting eye. In the first five minutes of the second period he hit four from downtown and fed off for two more baskets on fast breaks. Trailing 53-49, Long Beach took time out and the crowd, by now thoroughly aroused, went berserk.
The Cajuns stretched their lead to 10 points, 71-61, but then Ratleff took charge and the 49ers slowly crept back. When they tied the score at 81, on a Ratleff jumper with 1:39 left, it looked as if the big guard's great effort—he wound up with 26 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists, all team highs—might pull the game out. Unfortunately, by this time he had too much going against him. Stephens was out for having fouled once too often while trying to stop a Lamar jumper in backcourt, and now Ebron owned the boards. He got a basket in close. Next the Cajuns' Payton Townsend picked up a loose ball and fed downcourt to Jerry Bisbano, who hit a driving layup over Glenn McDonald. Knocked to the floor on the play, Bisbano got up and sank a free throw to make it 86-81. The game, for all purposes, belonged to the Evangeline people. Lamar, who had 24 points in the half, scored his last two with 20 seconds left to make the final score 90-83.
In the bedlam immediately afterward Lamar and Ratleff hugged each other and grinned. When it was announced that they were the co-winners of the outstanding player trophy, the delegates from Columbus East were the happiest people of all. Lamar ended with a game-high 38 points. "He's something," said Tarkanian, "but Ebron deserved the award with Eddie." Ebron hit 11 of 17 shots for 25 points. He also grabbed 15 rebounds as the Cajuns won that side of the contest 47-34.
Afterward nobody was thinking too far into the future, but it is conceivable that the Cajuns and 49ers will be re-matched in the NCAA semifinals at Los Angeles. In February 6'8" Leonard Gray becomes eligible to join the 49ers and they will almost certainly be UCLA's strongest challenger in the West. As for the Cajuns, if they can knock off Dayton and Cincinnati late in the season and not allow themselves to be shot down by somebody like Louisiana Tech, they very well could enter the Midwest Regional as an at-large team and win. And then would the bon tons roll.
Flying in at the end of a dipsy doodle, Lamar scores an easy basket against Pan Am.