For 39 minutes 57 seconds Tuesday night, Jessie Evans' team was going to be a headline in every morning newspaper in the country.


Jessie's team was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff. It would be the most notable victory at Louisiana in such a long time that the school had a different name - Southwestern Louisiana - when it last won a game of more force.

But those Ragin' Cajuns of 1970-73, spurred by the nation's leading scorer, Bo Lamar, averaging 98 points a game and rising to No. 4 in The Associated Press poll, are not remembered fondly in Cajun country. Those teams fractured so many NCAA laws that the school was forbidden from fielding a basketball team in 1974 and 1975, the first so-called "Death Penalty" of NCAA sports.

This Cajun team, led by Evans, Lute Olson's assistant coach from 1989 to 1997, has the look of a team full of life. Unfortunately, much like the St. Mary's team that scared the bejabbers out of Arizona two weeks ago, Louisiana needed the game to be, say, 30 seconds shorter.

Arizona won 72-69, shaky all the way, jarred by the uneven performances of juniors Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye. But do not sell the Cajuns short and put it all on Stoudamire and Frye.

"The thing you have to remember," Olson said, "is that the other team can play well, too."

If you have spread any ulcer tissue worrying about Arizona basketball in the last decade or so, surely you remember the last Sun Belt Conference team to sent a tremor through Olson Nation. Evans remembers it, too.

It was 1997, first-round NCAA tournament game in Memphis. A purposeful, slow-motion, hard-nosed South Alabama team had the Wildcats all but beat with six minutes remaining. Only a late rush by Miles Simon kept the Wildcats alive and on track to the national championship.

That was Evans' last few weeks on Arizona's bench. Once he left for parts South, it was like he dropped off the face of the basketball planet. Now we know he has not been idle or overmatched by the difficulty of operating his own program.

Much like the South Alabama team of '97, Evans' teams in Louisiana haven't been a light touch for anybody. He has become that league's ranking coach. How so? He is 63-29 in Sun Belt games, a winning percentage of 68 percent, three times winning division championships. His 1999-2000 team went 25-9 and had Tennessee on the ropes until the final two possessions of a first-round NCAA game, losing 63-58.

It says here that, by March, this could be Evans' best team, although he did not necessarily agree after Tuesday's game.

"This is my most fun team," he said, "but let's see us win 25 games before we call it the best."

The Cajuns are swift and unafraid, a miniversion of the UA's athletic Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala. When they get back to Louisiana and they realize how close they came to providing a career victory for their coach, it may finally sink in: if the Cajuns can do what they did in Tucson, then the oft-feared Sun Belt trips to Mobile, Ala., and Denton, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M., might not be so daunting.

"We can play, and we know we can play," said Evans. "But let's face it. We came up short. We expected to win."

The rest of the story

By Greg Hansen
Arizona Daily Star