HELENA – Dane Warp’s hand quivered.
There the sophomore sat, planted in the corner, his hand trembling. It was the same hand that became one of fable in Havre for years and now was delivering a stellar 20 points and the biggest win of the season. There he sat, open, awaiting a pass. This time, however, the ball didn’t come his way.
Almost as if his right hand had come alive and the only sustenance it required to thrive was sailing another shot through the net, it shook. He glanced back at the bench and smiled. Manager Joe Kiefer and company on the end of the bench could only laugh.
Warp sizzled all night off the bench for the Saints. He and fellow reserve Alejandro Santos Piqueras, who’s essentially played at an all-conference level as of late, boosted the Saints to another level, and a stellar team-wide defense allowed Carroll College to repeat as Frontier Conference postseason champions, downing rival Montana Western 79-65 on Monday in the PE Center.
“I’m so happy for Dane Warp,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “He’s such a good player. He played swell tonight, just fantastic ball.”
On a night the Bulldogs focused on shutting down Ryan Imhoff with double teams and physical man-to-man defense, the Saints found loads of production elsewhere.
Warp’s production surprised no one.
Western coach Steve Keller, who coached Monday’s star in the Montana-Wyoming high school all-star game years ago, could only shake his head and smile afterward.
“He’s really, really good,” Keller said. “Obviously he showed that tonight.”
Santos’ play this season has been consistent enough that the Saints expect it every turn of the way. On Championship Monday, Santos finished 2 points shy of a triple-double with 8 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
“He’s like a revelation,” Cunningham said of Santos. “He’s taking his game to a whole other level. Now we always knew and hoped that in time it could develop like it has, but for him to actually do it is phenomenal. He’s consistently been so huge for us off the bench.”
Cunningham credited his team’s intensity and focus after the Saints led nearly the entire game and never let the no-quit Bulldogs back into the game. Behind an incredible 19-for-26 shooting effort in the first half, the Saints built a 43-28 lead by halftime.
In the second half, Carroll outscored the Bulldogs again, 37-36. The seeds of that game-long focus, Cunningham said, were planted months ago.
“When we were 5-4 maybe some people counted us out,” Cunningham said. “Our guys just always coming to practice and they’re ready to work .They’re open-minded about tactics. And they support each other. They play together. It all factors in. You give Montana Western credit. They’re a very difficult team to guard and very difficult team because they have so many pieces that can score in different ways.”
Santos, too, recalled a time not-so-long ago when folks didn’t believe in the Saints. His freshman year, the Saints were picked to finish last in the preseason poll. Now, the Saints were moments removed from capping off a consecutive Frontier Conference postseason championship. And Santos and Warp, reserves all season, were demonstrating the strength of Carroll’s entire team.
“I knew we were doing things well,” Santos said afterward after learning just how close he came to polishing off the championship with a triple-double. “The whole team was playing amazing. It was very nice to keep it rolling against a great team like Western.”
Western collected itself at halftime, and took its best shot at Carroll to open up the second half.
Guards Ife Kalejaiye and Lorel Johnson hounded Western’s top bulldog all night, harassing Dom Robinson the majority of the game. The small but mighty guard finished the first half scoreless, but instantly attacked the Saints in the second half.
Robinson began to put the Saints guards into foul trouble in the second half. After picking Johnson’s pocket in the half-court, Robinson rushed to the rim and drew a foul on Johnson. It left the Saints with three fouls a piece on Johnson and Kalejaiye.
“Gotta drive them downhill,” Keller said of his team’s attack in the second half. “We worked a little bit on getting in there and kicking. That’s what we did to start with instead of attacking. That was a bad decision on my part. Give them all the credit.
Suddenly, instead of drawing the Saints into the paint and kicking, the Bulldogs were looking to finish.
The preseason player of the year had his moments, and planted four fouls on Kalejaiye and three on Johnson, but Carroll’s defense and rebounding never wavered. Whether it was Warp, Kyle Nickol, any of the Saints’ starters, or somebody else, Carroll’s defense never weakened. For as much as the Saints challenge Johnson and Kalejaiye to be stoppers, on Monday, all the Saints were stoppers.
“Lorel and Ife are amazing on-ball guard defense, probably some of the best in the country,” Santos said. “They set the tone so when somebody else – Kyle and Dane – someone else comes off the bench they know what they have to do. They know what it takes. They see it every day. And they do it. We have great team defense. Everybody is involved every time.”
The Saints defended their lead and increased it in the second half.
Keller had nothing but praise for the champions of the Frontier.
“They’re legit,” Keller said. “They seriously have a shot to win it all because they can guard at a high level. They’re so efficient on offense and they guard and rebound.”
Carroll’s seniors – Patrick Colberg, Imhoff, Johnson, Nickol and Oliver Carr – were the first to hoist the trophy afterward. Each one a major contributor in their own way.
Carroll and Western – and likely Lewis-Clark State College – will await their seeding for the NAIA Tournament. The Saints will host a watch party of the bracket unveiling.
With one final poll left on the season, the conference’s rater shared where he thought the Saints belonged.
“They’re a top five team in the country,” Keller said. “I’m going to do everything I can to get them in the top five.”
Ranking aside, the Saints are Frontier Conference champions for the second consecutive year.