A week after two must-win games in three days, there’s been a flip to the Saints’ postseason script.
The Carroll College men (25-5), the Frontier Conference's regular-season champion, reaps the luxury of ample preparation, being out of game action for six days before Saturday’s Frontier tournament semifinals. Last week, the Saints faced the mammoth order of traveling into Butte on Thursday and Lewiston on Saturday, clawing out wins for right to the No. 1 seed in the postseason, the first the program had won under fourth-year coach Carson Cunningham.
Carroll then had two fresh opponents, as both Montana Tech and Lewis-Clark State College fortified for the Saints’ bombardment. The Saints broke through.
The top seed gave the Saints a bye in the quarterfinals, meaning Carroll’s semifinal opponent, Montana State-Northern (21-10), would be the team playing two games in a week, facing a rested Carroll team. Northern took care of Rocky Mountain, 71-54, on Wednesday.
“You just worry about not being sharp, but you can control that with a high level of intensity,” Cunningham said. “That’s the goal. I think they’ve been doing that.”
Should Carroll win, Helena will be the destination of the Frontier Conference championship -- Carroll’s right as the No. 1 seed. If No. 2-seeded Montana Western can protect its home court against No. 3-seeded Lewis-Clark State, Western would travel to the PE Center on Tuesday.
Home-court advantage will give the Saints a boost. Carroll is 12-2 in the PE Center this season. Both losses, however, have come at the hands of Montana Western.
“It’s awesome. It’s exciting,” Cunningham said. “We feel like we have the best fans in the NAIA, across the nation. They come out and support and make noise. We draw a lot more than a lot of colleges on a lot of different levels -- NCAA on down. So any time we can play here, we feel like that’s an awesome opportunity.”
While playing on their own turf promotes success, the Saints also own a 3-0 record against Northern this season, beating the Lights 63-51 and 68-60 in Helena, and taking a 64-48 win in Havre.
Northern owns a 6-5 road record this season, though later in Frontier play the Lights did have a 4-2 burst over a six-game road test, signaling they are more than capable of performing well away from home.
Part of Northern’s recipe to success comes from its defense and ability to shift on the fly. The Lights play a gritty, man-to-man, funneling penetration toward their 6-foot-10 center Ryan Reeves. MSU-Northern is ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 61 points per game.
The Lights are powered by their defense, rebounding and 3-point shooting. Reeves is a big part of the defensive equation, scoring 9.8 points per game (second best on the team), but more importantly grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots each night.
David Straughter leads the Lights with 10.4 points per game to go along with five rebounds.
The Skylights play a deep bench, with 10 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game, and no player playing more than 26 minutes.
The Saints will be more of a small-ball team, after looking like a behemoth for the majority of the season. Carroll’s transition is a stark contrast to their earlier iteration. A little over a month ago, Carroll thrived when it created mismatches and tortured opponents each possession. While the talent is still there, Carroll’s shifted the offense slightly, partially due to the nature of having two forwards, Match Burnham and Oliver Carr, injured.
While Burnham is expected to have his cast off his shooting arm next week -- creating a small window to acclimate before the national tournament -- Carr’s season is done. The forward had surgery to repair a torn ACL on Friday.
Although the offense is tweaked, the Saints are still ranked No. 1 nationally in field goal percentage (53 percent), No. 1 in free throw percentage (81) and No. 3 in 3-point percentage (42).
Carroll gets huge production from junior forward Ryan Imhoff and senior guard Zach Taylor. Imhoff is averaging 17.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per night. Taylor adds 16.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
Of late, the Saints have seen the raise of freshman Dane Warp, Steve Helm, Lorel Johnson, Alejandro Santos-Piqueras, Ife Kalejaiye and Matt Wyman, as the Saints were forced to tinker with rotations. Each has shown flashes and given the Saints lifts intermittently.
The last time the Saints and Lights met in the playoffs, in 2014-15, MSU-Northern entered the PE Center and took a win from a rebuilding program, a team that was expected to finish last in the conference. Imhoff Taylor and Carr had big nights, but the Saints fell off in the second half.
Now, two seasons later, the Saints are heavy favorites and looking to accomplish another first under Cunningham: Host the Frontier Championship.
First, the Lights stand in the way. Tip on Saturday is set for 7 p.m.