HELENA, Mont. – In the 2012-13 season, the Carroll College men’s basketball team didn’t win a game on the court of the PE Center.
Four years later, under the tutelage of a young, unproven and slightly eccentric high school basketball coach from Indiana and guided by an undersized wiry guard from suburban Seattle, the fourth-ranked Saints secured their first Frontier Conference tournament title since the 2005-06 season, and they did it on their home court, defeating Lewis-Clark State 93-75 Tuesday night.
Carroll dominated the first half, hitting 20 of its first 23 shots and built a 29-point lead before the Warriors cut it to 22 at the break.
Ryan Imhoff was 8-8 in the first half, and Matt Wyman was also perfect, hitting 6-6. The two combined for 31 of the Saints 47 first half points.
The second half was a much closer affair, Lewis Clark cut the lead to 71-56 with 5:36 to play but the Saints held them at arms distance for the remainder of the game and closed out the 18-point win.
Fans in the stands knew very early on that this night would be a special one for Carroll College and the fact was not lost on head coach Carson Cunningham.
“They played with a joyful competitive spirit, and that is contagious,” Cunningham said. “The group action reached what Gene Keady used to call the magic level, where the sum is greater than the individual parts, and that is the great thing about team sports. They work so hard and to see them get into that type of flow is fun. The fans get into that energy, and then they give us a boost, and it starts feeding on itself.”
The Saints were impressive from the field, hitting 33-49 (67.3 percent), including 9-14 (64.3 percent) from the three-point line.
Imhoff and Wyman’s impressive first half numbers were just the start. Wyman ended with a career-high and game-high 28 points on 12-16 shooting. He also added eight rebounds, Imhoff tallied 23 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Ife Kalejaiye closed with 13 points and Zach Taylor, the wiry point guard and the lone senior on the squad, closed his career on the PE Center court with 13 points, seven rebounds, and a game-high four assists.
“We got into a special rhythm tonight. There have times that we have done it, but we sustained it for long stretches tonight,” Cunningham said. “As a coach, to see the group get to that type of place, it is a delightful experience. You are so happy for them, and you know how hard they’ve worked. You can just go down the line on guys, everybody on the team contributed. Then you go to our coaches and our trainers and our staff.
“We’re really grateful to do this at Carroll College. We’ve been able to attract dynamic student-athletes that love to get after it, play a neat brand of basketball and do great work in the classroom. We are grateful to be able to carry the banner of the Carroll at the men’s basketball tournament.”
For Cunningham, watching his lone senior close his home court career with a conference championship was a great experience.
“I am just really happy for Zach,” Cunningham said. “He has had a startling career. He has worked so hard, he stuck with Carroll after a two-win season during his senior year of high school, and he has just worked. It is a moment that you have to be happy for him and the group because he led us to this point.”
The Saints, now guaranteed a spot in the NAIA National Basketball Championship in Kansas City, await their next opponent.
This will be the second-consecutive trip for the Saints, last year Carroll advanced to the quarterfinals. This year, with a No. 4 ranking, the Saints will look to earn a No. 1 seed.
The selection show will be live streamed Wednesday at 7 p.m. MST. The team will watch the show at the Trinity Hall Lounge on the Carroll campus. Fans are invited to attend the watch party with the team.
Courtesy: Carroll Sports Information