The annual Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State College Championship game is Tuesday night.
At least that’s how it feels of late.
The Saints, crowned regular season champions, host the No. 3-seeded Warriors in the Frontier Conference Championship, reigniting a matchup that played out last season in Lewiston. Carroll traveled then and fell to a strong Warriors team, 79-70.
“They’re a versatile team,” Saints coach Dr. Carson Cunningham said. “Team that scores in a lot of different ways and can score quickly and is playing well. Should be a fun challenge. I think fans will enjoy the high level of play.”
The matchup has sparked three tremendous games, which were settled only in the final few seconds, but even then, felt very much unsettled, at least for Lewis-Clark State, which took three difficult losses on the season.
“Over the last couple, two or three seasons, we’ve had some battles with these guys,” Warriors coach Brandon Rinta said. “Had a battle in the Frontier Conference tournament championship game last year as well. I would expect nothing less tomorrow. This is the fourth time. There are no secrets. Everybody knows everybody. I think our guys are hungry.”
Rinta’s squad enters the night playing at a high caliber. Three nights after knocking off No. 2-seeded Montana Western in Dillon (101-95, OT), the Warriors elected to travel to Helena on Sunday and find practice time in the PE Center.
The Warriors notched perhaps their signature win of the season over Western, a result that should lead to a Top 25 ranking and the required result for entry into the NAIA national tournament.
“I think it was a really big for our team especially if you knew how the games have gone for us in Dillon the previous two times,” Rinta said. “You could make a strong case for those being our worst two games of the year. They weren’t close. Western is a really good team. They played well on both those nights and we didn’t. For us to go back a third time and find a way to win, for it to be a playoff win on top of that, is really rewarding for this team.”
LCSC is led by the Frontier’s leading scorer in 6-foot-3 guard Doug McDaniel, who averages 18.25 points and 6.5 rebounds per evening. Against Western, the guard dropped 29 points.
The Warriors receive big efforts from 6-foot-5 forward Zavon Jackson (10.9 ppg and 7.9 rpg) and 6-foot-2 guard Anthony Sullen (10.5 ppg). Jackson recorded 18 points and 21 rebounds to help the Warriors upend the Bulldogs.
Carroll, too, has elevated its play in the final few weeks of the season, showcasing a level of efficiency the Saints had lost as they worked through injuries. It’s in Carroll’s DNA to find and create high quality shots, punish opponents that put them on the free throw line, and cherish every 3-point attempt. In each of those categories, Carroll is a top three team nationally.
The Saints are No. 1 in field goal percentage (53), No. 1 in free throw (81) and No. 3 in 3-point (42). In harmony, the Saints are a team that feasts on the opposition’s inadequacies, finding favorable matchups and exploiting them.
A large part of that comes from Saints senior guard Zach Taylor, who a little after two weeks will play in his true final game in the PE Center. The heralded guard had his moment on Senior Night Feb. 18, and the emotion from that night has hardly lingered as the Saints have earned additional home games.
“Well because we’ve been able to play some extra home games after Senior Night, I think we’ve been able to sort of ride through those emotions a bit and keep our focus on the action,” Cunningham said. “That’s really what we’re trying to do. Now it’s more just trying to lock in on the task at hand. I feel that’s Zach’s approach. It just kind of sets the tone since he’s our leader. I think we’ll have a lot more time to reflect once we play these tournaments out. We’re really just kind of in prep mode and looking forward to getting after it on Tuesday night.”
Even if the time to reflect may be weeks from now, Cunningham offered a celebration of Taylor.
“It is clearly stunning what he’s done over the last four years,” He said. “He’s done it with rapport with the fellas. He’s done fantastic work in the classroom. He’s well liked on campus, fun to coach. Really, I’m just trying to focus on the fact that we get to play more games together as group, because this is a neat group.”
In the quarterfinals against Montana State-Northern, Taylor 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists. He averages 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per night. Carroll also rides the power and nimble play of Ryan Imhoff, who averages 17.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game.
Yet, it’s the rest of the Saints, the ones with modest statistical averages, who have righted the Saints in the last few weeks.
If Saturday’s semifinals and the teams’ recent histories are any indicators, Tuesday will be another classic.