HELENA — Sometime after the hugs, the net cutting, the standing ovations, the “WHY NOT US?!” cry and, oh yeah, a 49-42 victory Thursday night against Lewis-Clark State that sealed a Frontier Conference championship, Carroll College women's basketball coach Rachelle Sayers got drenched.
Players spilled out of the locker room in jubilation, some sharing video on their phones of the locker-room soak fest.
Sayers, about 15 minutes removed from her team claiming the first conference championship in her six-year tenure as coach, had some explaining to do.
“We had a little water problem after the game,” Sayers said. “(The players) won and I didn’t.”
The ecstasy of a title left her wetter for wear, and she couldn’t have been happier. None of the Saints could.
Carroll fended off a pesky Lewis-Clark State team, sealing the game with a style of play that perfectly befit the Saints this season: defense and rebounding.
Carroll and Lewis-Clark exchanged blows all night. Neither team could quite solve the others’ defense for more than a possession or two at a time.
It made freshman guard Jaidyn Lyman’s defense-turning-offense play all the bigger in the fourth quarter.
Lyman, who started and played down the stretch and was one of many major contributors for the Saints all season, turned a ball handler over in the half court and raced the other way for bucket.
“That steal by Lyman was huge down that the stretch,” Sayers said. “That kind of gave us the momentum.”
Offensive rebounding became the Saints’ greatest asset, particularly with less than two minutes to go. Nursing a five-point lead, the Saints ripped down two offensive boards, which translated into additional possessions and more importantly time bleeding off the clock.
“Our whole pregame is limiting our errors and dominating the boards,” Sayers said.
It was the ultimate team effort. The Saints out-rebounded the Warriors 41-24, including 14 offensive rebounds. Carroll held the Warriors to 32 percent shooting from the field.
Two Saints finished with 10 points – Michaela Dowdy and Taylor Salonen – and four others chipped in six each.
Salonen came off the bench first for Carroll and scored on her first two tries. Salonen caught high-post passes and showed touch from the mid-range or the ability to put the ball on the floor and score.
The sophomroe finished the first quarter with eight points and the only bucket she missed came on a last-second tip where she didn’t get a strong look. She outscored the Warriors by herself in the period.
Carroll built a nine-point in the second quarter, but a series of post scores by the Warriors allowed LCSC to claw back in the game. A 3-pointer by Delaney Henery drew the Warriors within one. And then, Bailey Pasta took off.
The senior point guard raced down the court and fired off a leaning, well-beyond-the-arc 3-pointer and canned it. A momentous rally by the Warriors was thwarted in just a few seconds by Pasta’s buzzer beater.
It was just the second make by the guard who had struggled to that point. She entered halftime shooting 2-for-7, all from the 3-point line.
It didn’t matter on Thursday. Pasta made the plays when she needed, and the Saints’ defense never took a possession off.
A particularly passionate group of Saints fans – led by some Saints soccer players – stood and cheered the majority of the game. They also assisted Carroll on five or six possessions – though it won’t show up in any scorebooks.
The Saints fanatics started shot clock countdowns on Warriors’ offensive possessions, prompting LCSC to shoot a hurried shot five-to-six seconds early. Warriors coach Brian Orr could only watch as his team fell for the deception throughout the game.
It was just another example of the type of energy in the PE Center on Thursday.
While Senior Night awaits the Saints on Saturday, Sayers made sure her two seniors had their moment on Thursday. With 15 seconds remaining and Carroll at the free-throw line, Sayers subbed out Dowdy and then Pasta. When Pasta went to the bench, she exaggerated her steps, each one longer than the last, before she grasped Sayers with a bear hug.
“It was the best moment ever,” Pasta said afterward, moments after cutting down a strand of net in the PE Center. “Coach and I have been through thick and thin since day one, freshman year. We’ve been talking about this moment ever since she recruited me. We’ve been talking about our goal was conference champs and our goal is to get to nationals and make some noise. It was just amazing to be able to do that and to be able to share it with her. She’s an amazing role model. I just love her.”
In a season where many doubted the credentials of the Saints – a team that lost All-American Cassidy Hashley to a medical redshirt and lost Sara Chalich to a torn ACL early – Carroll left no doubt on Thursday.
This season belongs to the Saints.
And it’s not over.
Carroll hosts Western on Saturday. The Saints have nothing left to prove to anyone outside the program – save maybe members of the NAIA tournament committee — but plenty to prove to themselves. Carroll hasn’t forgotten the first half of its game down in Dillon. Carroll scored just nine points in 20 minutes and the Bulldogs evened the series up 1-1.
It’s true the Saints have the No. 1-seed locked up going into Saturday. And it’s also true the Saints are hungry for another win.
“We’re out to get some revenge,” Pasta said. “We came out and played really amazing at home and then we didn’t play our best at their place. We don’t let up. It’s about getting better every single day.”
Forever, the Saints will be remembered as the best in the Frontier in 2017-18.