As he exited the game to a stirring ovation, his last walk to the bench at the PE Center carried greater significance.
Zach Taylor went out a champion.
Taylor, the team’s lone senior, and the No. 4 nationally ranked Carroll College men devastated Lewis-Clark State Warriors 93-75 on Tuesday night in the Frontier Conference championship game. It is the first conference tournament title since the 2005-06 season for the Saints.
“He’s had a startling career,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “He’s worked so hard. He stuck with Carroll after a two-win season when he was a senior in high school he comes and he just worked. It was a really just a moment where you’re really happy for him and the group. He’s led us to this point.”
The Saints (27-5) played like champions from the tip, throttling the Warriors in a way unlike the Saints’ previous three matchups with the talented squad from Lewiston, Idaho.
“We got into a special rhythm tonight,” Cunningham said. “There have been times we’ve done it, but we sustained it for such long stretches tonight. I can just tell you as a coach to see the group get in that type of place it’s really just a delightful experience.”
Sophomore forward Matt Wyman felt it early, creating off the dribble to score two buckets and hitting a 3 in transition to score seven of the Saints’ first nine points.
“Coming into this game I knew I was going to have my shots,” Wyman said. “I knew I needed to come in confident, ready to shoot the ball, ready to be aggressive. Those opening minutes there I got some easy ones that got me going and then my teammates found me for some more and kept it rolling.”
He reached a new offensive level, terrorizing the Warriors to a career-high 28 points through a brilliant, aggressive game.
“28?!” an exasperated Taylor exclaimed. “He had a game. We knew he could do that stuff all season. It was awesome he did it tonight.”
While Wyman had the rhythm early, the Saints also found Ryan Imhoff in the paint. Carroll pummeled the Warriors down low, scoring 10 of their first 19 points inside.
LCSC (23-10) found itself in a dangerous predicament: Single cover Imhoff, or double down and risk another player torching the Warriors. When the double didn’t come fast enough or at all, the bruising forward blasted through his coverage for high-quality shots.
“They played like the No. 4 team in the country tonight,” L-C coach Brandon Rinta said. “When they’re hitting shots like that, especially when Wyman and Imhoff get it going like that, oh man … When Wyman is hitting 3s, when the guy we’re trying to help off on Imhoff is going, it’s tough. It was two-fold. They came out in a good rhythm but we allowed them to get in that rhythm. If you allow a team like that to get in a rhythm like that offensively, ball game.”
Rinta’s recap wasn’t far off.
The Saints ripped the Warriors, causing havoc on defense and punishing the Warriors who lagged in transition, capping off a momentous run through the first half with an Imhoff dunk on the break.
The Warriors switched to a 2-3 zone, but the barricade didn’t keep Imhoff from posting and working his way into quality looks. The foray into the defense didn’t last long.
“I had a little feeling,” Taylor said of his team playing well beforehand. “I didn’t think we were going to be that hot. We had a lot of open shots and we were just knocking them down. Our defense was very good in the first half. We were playing with a lot of energy. They beat us last year in the tournament, so I think we really wanted to get that.”
The Saints may never have played better this season.
Coaches often relinquish small feats of solid basketball play, but shy away from being content. The line usually goes, “there’s always something to improve on.”
The Saints on Tuesday, at least in the first half, were as close to basketball perfection as a team could be. Carroll started 19 of 22 from the field, and 4 of 4 beyond the arc. Imhoff and Wyman did not miss a shot in the first half.
Perhaps most incredibly, the Saints defense, for the first time in four games against LCSC, baffled the Warriors. LCSC missed layups. The team turned the ball over. The gritty squad that had played Carroll to three losses by a combined total of seven points, could not find an answer.
“I feel like our guys have been locked in,” Cunningham said. “That’s a neat feeling to have. You’re always nervous and not totally sure going into a big game especially like this against a really good team. I was just thrilled and so happy for the guys to see how well they played. They played with a joyful competitive spirit that is contagious. The group action reached what Gene Keady used to call the magic level, where it’s a sum that’s greater than the individual parts. That’s the beautiful part about team sports.”
The Saints thoroughly controlled the first half, jumping out to a 47-25 lead.
With 14:54 left, the conference’s leading scorer, Doug McDaniel, went to the bench.
THWUNK -- the sound of a fist colliding against the cushion of a folding chair.
It was perhaps the loudest expression the Warriors made all night. The roar the team had shown by defeating the No. 2-seeded Montana Western Bulldogs in Dillon in the semifinals became a distant whimper. The Warriors’ powerful play, at least for a night, was stymied.
McDaniel’s frustration boiled over. His team toiled but hardly chipped into Carroll’s lead in the conference championship, and reality set in.
As Rinta said, ball game.
Carroll had a home-court advantage, but it wasn’t from the Saints’ student body. While the Saints displayed some of the best basketball the PE Center has ever seen, the college went on spring break.
The band, student section and cheerleaders were gone. The school brought in cheerleaders from Capital High School for the second consecutive game. Yet, the atmosphere, at times, was deafening.
In the second half, the Warriors trimmed the lead to 15 for about 30 seconds, providing a moment that could lead to drama. Taylor squelched that, hitting a 3-pointer and ensuring the Saints were fully in control.
The term small-ball had been thrown around to describe the Saints in recent weeks. The absences of forwards Oliver Carr and Match Burnham, integral parts to the Saints' identity, had left the Saints trotting out smaller lineups. The adjustment to playing a new style of basketball took time, and with it a few lumps.
By the conference championship game, the Saints’ new iteration found itself, dominating in the paint early and returning to the cohesion that can be unstoppable.
“Losing Oliver Carr and Match Burnham is huge,” Wyman said. “Match spreads the floor so well and Oliver is a workhorse down low. Teams still have trouble guarding Ryan down low. He’s big and strong and he can find the open man and score the ball, too. I wouldn’t necessarily say small-ball but if you want to call it that, I think we can play that way, too.”
At the game’s conclusion, the Frontier Conference commissioner Kent Paulson reminded everyone both teams in attendance -- and, he posited, Montana Western -- had more basketball to play.
“Gentlemen, you’re going to represent us well at the national tournament,” he told the teams.
Carroll accepted its trophy and then Rinta sought out Taylor, sharing a candid moment with the guard near mid-court.
“I told him that when they call his name at graduation and he hears a big huge blow horn, that’s me, here, celebrating his graduation,” Rinta said. “Just congratulated him. He’s one of the five best, top five players, since I’ve been in this league for six years. He’s just a tremendous winner. I congratulated him.”
For the second consecutive year, the Saints are off to the national tournament.
This time, as a conference champion.