BILLINGS -- The Saints are relearning to walk.
The quick-paced, ball-moving machine, which had a tendency to lock its competition down for 40 minutes, has broken.
The tattered No. 8 Carroll College men (21-5 overall, 11-3 Frontier) had their wounds ripped open further Thursday, taking an 82-79 loss to Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
“Obviously, right now we’re a new work in progress,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “We are going to continue to try to tweak this thing so that we can be playing as efficiently as we have been. It’s a new mix. That’s maybe going to call for some new type of action. Some wrinkles.”
With a broken roster -- Carroll played without Match Burnham, Oliver Carr and Lorel Johnson -- the Saints threw a variety of lineups into play, but trailed Rocky Mountain College 39-28 after the first half.
Four games in seven days brought fatigue with it.
Rocky (13-12, 6-7) powered to a 60 percent field goal percentage in the first half to get on top of Carroll.
“The first half was really the key in the game,” Rocky Mountain coach Bill Dreikosen said. “We shot 60 percent in the first half. We made 3s to make up for some of the things in the second half, which was nice. We weren’t scoring anywhere else.”
The Saints brought Kyle Nickol and Dane Warp into the game for extended runs early. The two had seen limited court time during conference season, but Carroll’s injuries meant the Saints would need to find new, suitable rotations.
On Thursday, pieces fit awkwardly together.
The Saints learned Wednesday junior forward Oliver Carr would be lost for the season, suffering a torn ACL in Tuesday night's loss. His absence meant Pat Colberg got the start at center on Thursday.
“We had some good moments, but we also have a lot of improving to do,” Cunningham said. “Guys are playing really hard. Playing really hard. They’re capable. We’re just going to have to keep working hard and try to play an overall better game.”
The Saints defense played well, but the Battlin’ Bears rotated the ball along the perimeter and sunk difficult 3-pointers, deflating a Saints team that needed many possessions to get the offense out of a rut.
“We have to be able to make some 3-point shots,” Dreikosen said. “We’re a good 3-point shooting team. We worked it long enough to finally get somebody open. Sometimes early in the second half we were forcing it too quickly. Or sometimes we were just stagnant. When we did move, we would make them defend three or four actions, usually our offense is better. Granted, you have to make the shots, too. Different guys stepped up and made shots tonight.”
Taylor Longo went 4 of 6, Chad Kananen hit 3 of 6 and Riley Bradshaw hit 3 of 6 from deep, and the Battlin’ Bears as a team shot 60 percent from the 3-point line. Rocky's shooting from deep in the second half helped the hosts find lanes to the basket late in the game, and give them free throws or higher-percentage shots.
As the Saints attempted to forge a new identity, the only piece of offense that worked were isolation plays, heavily by way of Zach Taylor and Ryan Imhoff, who combined for 42 points. The Saints only finished with seven assists and turned the ball over 12 times.
The Saints put together an 8-0 run off a trey from Alejandro Santos-Piqueras, who finished 5 of 9 from the field for 15 points and had 8 rebounds, Matt Wyman dunk and a Taylor 3-pointer, but Bradshaw drew a tough foul to stifle the run, hitting two free throws.
A 14-2 run got the Saints back in it, but Longo hit another 3 to once again punish the Saints.
Rocky hit only 3-pointers for the majority of the second half, scoring its first seven buckets from deep.
“We found a way to keep teams from shooting like that,” Cunningham said. “We’re just going to have keep finding ways to do that.”
Imhoff did yeoman’s work late, posting and muscling his way into the paint and to the free-throw line. A game after not taking a single free-throw attempt, Imhoff got there eight times.
Imhoff hit a few shots from beyond the arc to bring the Saints with four points, 73-69, but Rocky always had an answer.
Warp up-faked and hit a 3, and then the Saints got a steal, but fired up wild shots, desperate to cut further into the four-point hole. A free throw with two seconds left put the Saints in an impossible position, needing a 3-pointer without enough time to shoot one.
“We’ll see what happens,” Cunningham said. “Obviously I have to do a better job of helping these guys win.”
Carroll had dropped a tight battle against No. 13 Western on Tuesday, the second time the Bulldogs had upset the Saints in Helena. Both teams shot remarkable percentages, but a few possessions left Carroll on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Carroll, the team that held a reputation as being a dangerously efficient offensive juggernaut, faltered, shooting 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line, a long ways away from its season average.
Yes, it’s one game and will be recorded as only a three-point loss, but the Saints showed they’re in transition.
The loss is Carroll’s third in conference. Western also has three losses, and the Bulldogs now own a tiebreaker over the Saints.
The losses have left Carroll seeking answers.
Four games remain to find answers.