KANSAS CITY – No gimmicks. No gamesmanship. No guises.
The Saints stayed true to themselves, executing a disciplined offense and harassing with a potent defense, as Carroll's March toward a championship continued on Friday in the second round of the NAIA national tournament, defeating Southwestern Assemblies of God University of Texas, 87-80 in overtime.
“Our guys just have a fierce competitive spirit,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “It runs deep within them. They trust each other. They love each other. They play so hard for each other. It’s just impressive. I hope people feel it. I know I can feel it. I think the fans can. I think people watching can. It’s contagious. It’s fun to be around and I’m just grateful I get to coach them. They just keep grappling.”
Ife Kalejaiye and Lorel Johnson delivered epic shots in overtime to thump the Lions, and push the Saints into the quarterfinals.
“I think the 3s were late in the clock, so I was taking what the defense gives,” Johnson said. “Our approach was the same as it was in the beginning of the game" Be methodical and make them play D.”
Before that, SAGU did everything it could to eliminate any touches from Zach Taylor and Ryan Imhoff on the offensive end, going as far to intentionally foul Taylor when he got a catch within 15 feet of the hoop.
It didn’t matter, though, as the rest of the Saints stepped up in gigantic fashion.
“They were pretty tight on me,” Taylor said. “They were playing a zone or a triangle-and-two almost. We knew we were going to have open shots around the perimeter for Lorel and Ife and Dane (Warp), all those guys. We still tried to get it inside to Match (Burnham) or Ryan and run our stuff and take some time off the clock. They wanted to play fast and speed us up. I think we did a good job of staying patient and running our stuff. A lot of guys stepped up today and made huge shots.”
SAGU’s defense stayed true to its acronym, sagging on the Saints to harass Taylor and Imhoff, leaving Johnson, Kalejaiye and Wyman open the majority of the game.
“That’s just how we’ve been the whole year,” Johnson said. “Next man up. It’s not the first time they sagged off us three. I feel like that’s the typical strategy having two All-Americans, Zach Taylor and Ryan Imhoff. We have to step up ourselves. I think we showcased our depth this morning.”
Kalejaiye led the Saints with a career-high 19 points, followed by Burnham’s 18.
Keyunta Watkins, SAGU’s leading scorer, was held in check early on, beginning the game shooting 1 for 9 from the field. The only thing that got Watkins going was when he drew a foul on Taylor while attempting a 3-pointer. Watkins hit all three free throws, and foreshadowed his mindset for the remainder of the game: Fire away.
“He hit some very, very high degree of difficulty shots,” Cunningham said of Watkins. “We just try to stick with it. Just keep grappling. Keep striving. Keep chirping. Keep rotating. Keep talking. Our guys were able to make some humongous plays on both ends of the court. SAGU is a really good basketball team. They played really hard. They had active hands and were fierce rebounders.”
Carroll took a risk benching Imhoff and Taylor with a few minutes left in the half, and SAGU made a run from the free-throw line. Kentton Williams drew a foul, finished the bucket and made the free throw, but on the free-throw rebound, Carroll was whistled for another foul and the Josh Swearingin went back to the line for a one-and-one, making both.
Cunningham reinserted Imhoff for the final minute, but the Lions’ 10-2 run gave them a 36-34 advantage at halftime, including a buzzer-beating putback by Swearingin to end the half.
The differences in defense were evident. SAGU used a variety of gimmicks to limit Taylor, while the Saints played Watkins mostly in a straight-up, man-to-man defense, switching occasionally on the swing to prevent mismatches in the post.
SAGU built up its lead to seven in the second half.
Then, Carroll methodically chipped away.
Johnson and Kalejaiye took their defense to another level, containing and stifling the penetration of SAGU guards Watkins and Isaak Rowe.
“Amazing all year long,” Johnson said of Kalejaiye. “I think honestly he should have been Frontier Defensive Player of the Year. I think he may have been snubbed in that regard, but that’s my personal opinion. He’s done that all year along. We take it for granted honestly, because he does it every single game.”
Steve Helm hit a 3 to push the Saints' lead to 55-48, and then SAGU got a bucket from Josh Williams before the Lions received a delay of game technical, and Helm hit the one free throw.
Johnson broke down the SAGU defense, and kicked out to Warp for a 3-pointer.
Watkins hit three big treys to give SAGU a lead with five minutes left. Watkins came up with huge shots for SAGU, hitting a tough pull-up 3 late in the shot clock to push SAGU’s elad to 68-63.
It came at a cost, however. Watkins hit just 7 of 25 shots for 24 points.
“I think it was just running our stuff and making them play the full 30 seconds on D on the offensive end,” Johnson said. “No. 3 did hit some tough shots. We’ll live with those misses. With that territory comes some makes and we’ll live with those. It was really running our stuff and being methodical in the way we scored the ball.”
Helm answered with a 3 of his own seconds later and the Saints got a stop before Kalejaiye was fouled and hit two free throws, giving the Saints a 5-0 run and tying the game at 68.
Each side exchanged turnovers, setting up a SAGU possession with 53 seconds left. Then, the teams swapped timeouts. As the scoreboard indicated 68 for each side, the Lions and Saints were equalizing each other in all facets.
Watkins never let the ball leave his hands and fired another 3. This time, the solid D of the Saints bothered him just enough
Everything Watkins was, the Saints strive not to be: Inefficient and inconsistent. His dazzling ball handling and acrobatic 3-pointers could devastate, but his volume of shooting left the Lions needing more.
Carroll owned overtime, and the Saints hit a combined 22 of 23 free throws in the win.
The Saints move onto the quarterfinals to face No. 3 seed Life (Georgia), which defeated Martin Methodist and Hope International to reach the stage. Life is led by senior forward Dalarian Williams, who averages 21.4 points per game and 7.3 rebounds.
“They have one of the best players in the nation,” Cunningham said. “They shot really well from three today. They're a really tough team and a very good team.
"We’re just gonna have get into preparation mode and be ready to rock and roll at high noon. Goes at noon at tomorrow. Now, Gary Cooper is from Helena and he starred in High Noon. So tomorrow it’s high noon, Saturday, final eight. We’re excited.”