Zach Taylor picked up a microphone Saturday night.
Addressing a crowd donning 500 T-shirts emblazoned with both his name and caricature, the senior guard took a minute to thank fans, his teammates, and coach Carson Cunningham.
Then, Taylor did what he does best: Balled.
Taylor lead the Saints with 21 points, five assists and five rebounds as No. 8 Carroll College held down Montana State-Northern 68-60 on Saturday night in a packed PE Center.
“It was a little emotional,” Cunningham said. “That’s for sure. Maybe more than a little. I try to keep in mind that we have a lot of basketball left that I get to coach him in, which is exciting. We at least play again at home. Hopefully we play two more at home. I try to keep that in mind because it is emotional. Zach has just been an absolute dynamo. His attitude, his drive, his resilience, his cerebral approach to the game -- just a joy to be around and coach.”
Taylor made sure to pay his thanks before the game. The guard had considered his mood should the Saints lose and then have to address a crowd. Speaking to a energy-filled PE Center before the game, in front of his family -- including his grandmothers, who had never before been to a game -- Taylor said, in part: “I’d like to thank coach Carson for taking a chance on me. I wasn’t one of his recruits, but without him I wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Taylor led the Saints (23-5 overall, 13-3 in Frontier Conference play) in scoring during the first half, scoring 15 points, though it may have been Matt Wyman who stole the show as he threw down two consecutive massive dunks.
“Those were huge momentum swings in the first half,” said Saints forward Ryan Imhoff, who finished with 18 points. “It was kind of tight and he gave us a little lead and then we ran with it.”
Carroll’s defense continued to shine, harassing MSU-Northern (20-8, 9-7) into off-balance and tricky shots.
“It starts with an attitude,” Cunningham said. “Our guys are buying in. They are pulling for each other and fighting for each other. That’s really where it starts. Our guys are talented and they’re hungry. That’s a nice place to start on defense.”
Taylor started attacking about halfway through the second half, darting to the rim and drawing contact.
“I was really impressed with how he played tonight,” Cunningham said. “He was so active on possessions and even late in the game he was drawing so much attention and setting people up that way, whether it’s a hockey assist or drawing people on cuts or drawing people on drives and finding people.”
MSU-Northern once again put a zone on Carroll part of the way to combat the Saints’ 18-point lead and change the pace.
“All you had to do was look at the score to see something had to change,” MSU-Northern coach Shawn Huse said. “I say that in honesty. They were handling us. They were handling us, playing well. They’ve got a good team. We had to figure something else out. I thought our guys did a really good job with that.”
Imhoff started to find pockets inside the zone, hitting a few 10-foot shots to pace Carroll and keep the Lights at bay.
Northern’s defense did require the Saints to exhaust the majority of the shot clock, probing to find the right combination of passing and spacing to get off decent looks. It also allowed the Lights to get within four points of the Saints, who at points looked like they would run away with the game.
After Kyle Nickol missed a 3-pointer that could have put the Saints up by seven, Imhoff intercepted Northern’s outlet pass and beamed toward to the rim, bulling into a defender and drawing a foul. Imhoff would go 4 of 8 from the free-throw line for the game, a line that inspired light teasing from teammates and trainers afterward.
His aggression and knack for court awareness helped the Saints late.
Taylor stole the zone’s attention and Imhoff profited with wide-open jump shots from the elbow.
“It was a great atmosphere tonight,” Imhoff said. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary for Zach Taylor. I wasn’t shocked to see (him play well). It was a fun atmosphere. It was great playing in it. I’m glad he had a big night for his senior night. That’s awesome.”
It was the senior do-everything point guard’s last regular-season game in the PE Center.
“We’re improving,” Taylor said. “Getting better with the guys we have. We have to work on our small-ball game. We have to go to that throughout the game.
“I thought we did a good job on both ends, really.”
With the win, the Saints earned a season sweep of a surging MSU-Northern, which had won four of five coming in, all on the road – the one loss a four-point decision at Lewis-Clark State.
Carroll closes out the season with games at Montana Tech and Lewis-Clark State College. Both opponents have the added luxury of only playing once next week. Each side will have a week to prepare for the Saints, and solely the Saints -- another way Carroll will be tested in the regular-season finale.