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Home crowd turns out in force for Wrights return

STATESBORO — After Jay Wright ventured to Wyoming for his first year of college basketball, his family and friends weren’t going to miss the chance to see him playing nearby in year two.

Wright is playing closer to home as a sophomore, as the starting point guard for the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. A large contingent from Effingham cheered Wright on at Hanner Fieldhouse on Thursday night as his Ragin’ Cajuns took on Georgia Southern.

“It felt good,” said Wright, who helped lead the Effingham County High School Rebels to the Final Four as a senior in 2013. “I thank my family for coming out.”

Nonetheless, Wright couldn’t mask his disappointment over the game’s outcome. Louisiana-Lafayette lost 78-70 to fall out of sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt Conference.

Wright struggled, making just one of his nine shots from the field and three of seven from the free throw line to finish with five points. He recorded five assists, three rebounds and a steal, along with four fouls and three turnovers, while playing 31 minutes.

“Hundreds” of people among the capacity crowd of 4,325 were on hand to watch Wright, by his father Clarence Wright’s estimation. However, the younger Wright shrugged off the notion that he was nervous playing in front of the home crowd.

“No,” he said, “I was just worrying about winning the game.”

Wright’s tough night was not without its highlights, though. On a second-half possession, Wright drew the defense’s attention with a drive to the basket and then passed to teammate Shawn Long for an open dunk. Less than a minute later, Wright assisted on Long’s 3-pointer, pulling the Ragin’ Cajuns within two points after trailing by as many as 13.

That is the type of production head coach Bob Marlin has become accustomed to seeing in Wright’s first year in Lafayette. Wright signed with ULL after playing one season at Casper College in Wyoming, where was named the North Conference player of the year.

Wright is averaging 8.8 points per game, leads the team with 51 assists and is third with 16 steals. He has scored in double figures seven times, including a high of 20 points in a 91-64 rout of Troy, and has dished out a season-best six assists in two games.

“This is his third team in three years. It’s a process for him and he’s done very well to date,” Marlin said. “And the more experience he gets, the more he’s going to feel comfortable with things. He’s had some really great games.”

Wright was benched in just his second game, playing only eight minutes and scoring no points in a loss to Tulsa. He came off the bench the next game and responded with 11 points and two assists against Auburn.

Wright has started 13 of ULL’s 14 games since then. The lone exception was a game Wright sat out with an illness, and his absence was felt as the Ragin’ Cajuns lost to McNeese State.

“We felt like he was our guy from the start (at point guard),” Marlin said. “He’s the straw the stirs the drink for us.”

Wright said the biggest adjustment he has made moving up from junior college basketball to Division I has been “just being smarter and making smart decisions.” His coach agreed that Wright is steadily improving his overall play as the season progresses.

“He’s starting to see the floor better and better,” Marlin said. “He made some really good passes in recent games and he’s shooting the ball very well too. He’s done a good job attacking off the dribble, using his quickness and athleticism, but he’s also shooting the ball well.”

Big shoes to fill
Along with playing his first year of Division I college basketball and being responsible for running ULL’s offense, Wright faced another challenge this season – succeeding a player who is now in the NBA.

Last year’s point guard, Elfrid Payton, averaged 19.2 points and 5.9 assists in earning all-Sun Belt honors and leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to the NCAA tournament. Payton was the 10th overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft and is now starting for the Orlando Magic.

“That’s tough expectations right there,” Marlin said. “We tried to temper that early and told him that he wasn’t here to replace a guy that went to the draft lottery. But he has come in and done a really good job for us.”

Wright was undaunted by the task of following Payton. In fact, he embraced it.

“It’s a big handful, but that’s why I’m here, to get better and better,” he said. “I’m just trying to do what he did.”

Wright averaged 16.5 points, 5 rebounds and 4.5 assists as a freshman at Casper. His stellar season attracted the interest of several Division I programs, and he chose to sign with Louisiana-Lafayette after Payton declared for the NBA draft.

“I was waiting on him to see what he was going to do first, and then I was going to make my decision,” he said. “I’m up to it.”

ULL began recruiting Wright around this time last year, Marlin said. It started with a glowing reference from one of Marlin’s good friends, Central Wyoming College head coach Pat Rafferty.

“He knows a good point guard when he sees one,” Marlin said of Rafferty, whose resume includes working as an assistant at Louisville under legendary coach Denny Crum and as an NBA scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Marlin asked his friend about a different player he was interested in recruiting. Instead, Rafferty sang the praises of Casper’s star player.

“He said the best guy that he had seen was a guy named Jay Wright,” Marlin recalled. “So we started talking to Jay and then were fortunate enough to get him to visit, and we’re certainly glad it worked out.”

While Wright’s family and friends enjoyed his visit to Statesboro last week, seeing him play at Hanner Fieldhouse could’ve been a regular occurrence rather than a once-a-year occasion. Georgia Southern was one of the programs that pursued Wright last year.

“They tried to recruit me, but I felt like Louisiana-Lafayette was the better situation for me, and my family agreed on that,” Wright said.