HELENA – Senior Night, a No. 1 seed in the balance and a heated Montana Western-Carroll College rivalry.
What more could 2,553 basketball fans in attendance ask for?
On a night with layers of intrigue, it was the No. 6-ranked Carroll College men's basketball that performed the greatest, knocking off No. 10 Montana Western 82-62 to clinch a share of the Frontier Conference championship with the Bulldogs and a No. 1 seed in the postseason.
“The biggest thing for us is we continue to grow as a team,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “We’re super excited to repeat and we’re thrilled to be a one seed. I don’t even know if these guys know how hard it is to do what they’ve just done: repeat and get the No. 1-seed two years in a row. They’ve been able to draw on the process for the rest of their lives. Now we take a deep breath because that was a wild and crazy ride.”
Carroll (26-5, 13-5) got the Bulldogs down early, and Western (23-6, 13-5) never responded – at least not in typical Bulldogs fashion.
“They answered the bell and we didn’t,” Western coach Steve Keller said. “We’re both qualified for Kansas City. They played at a high level tonight. They were good. Once they got us down we never got back in.”
The crowd in the PE Center had almost a primal feeling to it. With a huge Saints fans population, but also a respectable contingent of Western reps, each play, each call, each bounce of the ball drew a visceral reaction from the crowd.
And it was the Saints who rose with the roars.
On a day the Saints advertised their seniors as superheroes on social media, it was a superhero effort from the seniors that helped put Carroll on top.
Carroll held a six-point lead with six minutes to go in the first half when the Saints called Oliver Carr’s numbers. In one particular stretch, Carr knocked down two free throws and a difficult layup and then fellow senior Lorel Johnson knocked down another jumper. Then, Carr snuck behind the Western zone and senior leader Ryan Imhoff took a high-post pass and dished it to the senior from Bozeman.
The super seniors did their part all night.
“I couldn’t imagine a better group a guys to go out with and go out in the regular season with,” Carr said. “It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of energy and a lot of energy in the crowd. Just a night to remember.”
With 40 seconds left in the first half, Matt Wyman held the ball. It wasn’t a last second shot attempt, but rather the Saints were looking to set up a play. Warren Helligar checked Wyman, suffocating the junior and daring him to put the ball on the court.
The high-flying junior from Great Falls drove by Helligar and, unchallenged in the paint, rose up and threw down a dunk.
The biggest two points of the half were his.
Carroll took a 41-29 lead into halftime.
“I’m just so impressed by the guys’ moxie, their togetherness, their ability to persevere, keep growing, pull for each other, scrap, execute — man,” Cunningham said. “They’re going to be able to draw upon that for the rest of their lives, their attitude, the approach. It’s been very moving to see firsthand.”
Western switched to man in second half, looking for answers to Carroll. It also benched leading scorer Dom Robinson, who was 1-for-8, with three points, and looked to get other guards involved.
Keller said it was a rest decision.
The Bulldogs turn around and host Montana Tech on Tuesday in the first round of the Frontier Conference playoffs.
They found some, but never fully capitalized. Carroll’s shooter, Match Burnham, went to the bench with four fouls and 18 minutes remaining in the second half.
Brandon Jones off the dribble gave the Saint a problem in the first half, and in the second half, the Bulldogs let him isolate and attack. He was the best Bulldog on Saturday, scoring 18 points on 6-for-11
“Montana Western is a very good team,” Cunningham said. “They’re very difficult to deal with. They’ve grown that throughout the year.”
The game took an ugly, rugged turn in the second half, lurching in pace as each team grinded and physically attacked the other
Even then, it was Carroll building and maintain a double-digit lead as the Bulldogs prepared their focus to the postseason.
Carroll, too, celebrated the No. 1-seed, but then quickly refocused to the next task at hand.
“We won and we all celebrated in there and we throwing water around,” Carr said. “And we also said we’re just getting started. That’s been our motto all year is we’re just getting started. We got more business to take care of, so we’ll be ready.”
With a first-round bye, the Saints have plenty of time to prepare.