Perfection will give the No. 8 Saints the Frontier Conference regular-season title.
One lapse, and No. 13 Montana Western will be waiting to pounce.
The Saints (23-5 overall, 13-3 in Frontier play) travel to Montana Tech (7-21, 1-16) and Lewis-Clark State College (21-8, 11-6) this week to close out the season. Two wins, and the Saints will win the conference crown -- a first under coach Carson Cunningham.
“We are really focused on Tech and trying to get as prepared as possible,” Cunningham said. “Really, they have had the same amount of time. So, that’s our focus. At this point in the year, we’re all pretty familiar with each other so we’re just taking one at time.”
It’s true Tech will have had the same amount of preparation time for Carroll. However, Tech will only be preparing for Carroll this week. And to magnify perhaps what largest challenge of the season, the Warriors, too, will be waiting until Saturday to play a single game, against Carroll.
Tech and Lewis-Clark played their series earlier in the season, flexing a game around the holiday schedule. For the Saints, that means two rested, prepared opponents in the final week.
“I think it’s an interesting time of the year,” Cunningham said. “Each team will be having their senior night. Those can be high-emotion games. In a lot of cases, around this time of year, the stakes are quite high. I know Tech’s been struggling a bit but we know they are capable. Lewis-Clark State is playing for seed and so you've just got to stay focused.”
Lewis-Clark is actually locked into the third spot in conference by its season series against Western and Northern. The Warriors took down Northern 2-1 and lost to the Bulldogs 2-1, meaning if the Warriors beat Carroll and Bulldogs stumble, LCSC is still third. Should LCSC fall, Northern cannot overtake the Warriors for third.
Unsettled spots include first, second, fourth and fifth. Great Falls and Montana Tech will finish sixth and seventh regardless of this week’s slate.
“It is a battle out there. The Frontier is a battle royale. We’re trying to get ready for Tech. For us, like we’ve talked about it, there’s another layer to this February time period because we’re still developing more small-ball approach, which we’ve been having to take out of necessity. So the bottom line is you try to win each practice. You try to get better each day. You focus on what you have in front of you. For us, that’s Tech on Thursday.”
This will be Tech’s last game of the season as the Orediggers look to secure one home conference win. Tech is led by Chris O’Neill’s 13.5 points per game and 112 assists. Lukas Vining adds in 11.3 points and 4 rebounds each night.
The Saints will counter with 17.3 points and 17 points from Ryan Imhoff and Zach Taylor, respectively. Imhoff also adds 6.4 rebounds each night and has racked up 80 assists on the season. Taylor pulls down 4.3 rebounds and leads the team with 102 assists.
Carroll continues to be without the surfaces of injured sophomore forward Match Burnham, though he is getting closer to a return.
The Saints are powered by their team-wide efficiency and defense. Carroll has a team that has dedicated itself to defending, and to show for it the Saints have the No. 9 defense in the nation, giving up an average of 67 points per game.
The Saints also rank No. 1 in field goal (54 percent) and free throw (81 percent) percentage, and also No. 4 in 3-point percentage at 41.
Carroll got itself back on track last week with two wins as it adjusted rotations to combat injury. Cunningham has called his lineups a work in progress since the Saints lost junior forward Oliver Carr for the season with an ACL tear.
If the Saints take care of the Orediggers, two nights later Lewis-Clark State College awaits. Carroll narrowly defeated the Warriors, 73-72, the last time the Saints visited Lewiston on Jan. 14. In Helena, the Saints needed overtime before a squad primarily consisting of Carroll’s reserves put away the Warriors, 81-78.
Lewis-Clark will have had a full week since it’s previous game when Carroll visits. The Warriors are powered by Doug McDaniel’s 18 points per game, which leads the conference, and 6.3 rebounds. Joining him in double figures are Anthony Sullen at 10.5 points per game and Zavon Jackson’s 10.2 points and 7.1 rebounds.
The Warriors are a team that moves the ball remarkably well, sitting at No. 2 in the nation in total assists. That ball movement generates 3-pointers and the Warriors are third in the nation with 287 treys made, an average of about 10 per game.