There will be no co-champions in the Frontier Conference this season.
Two nights after claiming at least a share of the Frontier's regular-season championship, the No. 8 Carroll College men one-upped themselves, closing out the season with a 63-60 win over Lewis-Clark State to win the Frontier outright.
“When you’re part of a group that does something like this, you can’t help but be grateful -- for the opportunity to coach these fantastic, moxie-filled men, for all the members of the coaching staff -- coach (Carlito) Labarda and (Jesse) Repay and (Scott) Menzies and manager Judd Brost -- for Carroll College, which has a huge heart, for the folks who help put us on home and away games and who clean up afterward, for trainer Jeff (Birchell),” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “I could go on and on. Shoot, I’ve stolen so much -- actually Huck Finn calls it borrowing -- from Gene Keady and Brad Stevens, I’ve got to thank them. I’ve gotten to learn from a great group of coaches at Carroll -- coach (Rachelle) Sayers and (Gary) Turcott, coach (Mike) Van Diest and his incredible staff and more.”
One-upping has been the story of Cunningham’s tenure at Carroll. Each season, the Saints’ win total has improved, beginning with a 9-19 inauguration in 2013-14 and now culminating Year 4 with an outright conference title.
Zach Taylor, who has been with Cunningham over those four seasons, texted: “It’s awesome. Glad we could get it done!”
Once again, the Saints and Warriors traded barbs in a down-to-the-wire slugfest. With the Saints leading by one, Ife Kalejaiye nabbed a rebound and made two free throws to give the Saints a three-point lead. A Doug McDaniel bucket got the Warriors back within one late, but then freshman guard Steven Helm -- as he did in Helena -- nailed two clutch free throws to put the Saints up three with five seconds left.
Lewis-Clark State could not score from the field early on, missing all of their field goal attempts a quarter of the way through the first half. The Warriors did go 8 of 8 from the free-throw line to hang around, though.
The Saints generally controlled the first half with quality play from Ryan Imhoff and Zach Taylor, taking a 32-25 lead into halftime.
Lewis-Clark got after it in the second, rushing out of the break to go on an 11-3 run that could give the Warriors a lead. Carroll responded with a bucket, but then the Warriors held the lead for a chunk of the half.
Dane Warp hit a three with under four minutes to go to help the Saints retake the lead, 54-52.
Doug McDaniel, the Frontier’s leading scorer, tied the game at 54 with a bucket a few plays later.
The two sides exchanged leads two more times, with Taylor scoring and grabbing a free throw and then Zavon Jackson answering to give the Warriors a 58-57 edge.
Wyman hit a long jumper to give the Saints another lead, 59-58, with less than a minute to go.
Then, it came down to free throws.
Carroll proved it could adjust on the fly this season, reinventing itself with a small-ball style of play due to the injuries to Oliver Carr and Match Burnham.
Imhoff finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Taylor added 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Wyman also threw in 12 points and seven rebounds.
Lewis-Clark State had 20 points and 13 rebounds from Jackson. McDaniel finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Carroll, as the No. 1 seed, will have a bye in the playoffs before hosting a postseason game in the PE Center against the lowest remaining seed. No. 13 Western will face the highest remaining seed.
No. 6-seed Great falls heads to No. 3 Lewis-Clark State College and No. 5 Rocky Mountain College goes to No. 4 Montana State-Northern in the first round.
The Saints’ title on Saturday was the first conference championship under Cunningham and the first outright title since the 2005-06 season. The Saints’ last conference title came in 2011 when the they split with the crown with MSU-Northern.
“We’ll savor this tonight and get back to prep mode for the conference tourney and then the national tourney,” Cunningham said.