HELENA — The Montana Tech men's basketball team come into the PE Center looking for their first win in Helena since 2014.
A few weeks ago, that streak ending would not have seemed likely.
The Orediggers were struggling to make traction in the Frontier Conference. They were competitive in games, but couldn’t quite muster the right combinations late to break through in the win column.
Then, they snuck past Carroll College in Butte. A few games later, they took down another Frontier Conference Goliath, Lewis-Clark State College.
Now, the Orediggers are still in the cellar of the conference, but the signs are there.
The Saints certainly aren't overlooking the team that dealt them a loss just a few short weeks ago.
“They’re dangerous because they can make shots and they play hard,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “They play defense. They’ve proven they can win games in this league. And so every single game in the Frontier is an absolute battle royal.”
While it’s Cunningham’s go-to line – “every game is a battle royale” – there’s a nugget of truth in there.
Carroll went into Butte as prohibitive favorites and came back with a 73-70 loss. The Orediggers have certainly improved this season, Year 2 under Adam Hiatt.
But then there’s the Saints, who enter the game after a 35-point shellacking of Montana State-Northern in the PE Center on Saturday.
Carroll’s defense is peaking at the right time, with a third of the conference season still on the slate. As the Saints blitz opponents with a flurry of pressure, their offense benefits.
Transitioning defense into electric offense puts the Saints into tough-to-beat territory.
And in the midst of a tight conference title race, the Saints can’t afford a slip-up. Carroll and Western sit tied at 8-4 at the top of the conference and each possess one win against the other one.
Lurking at 7-5 is Lewis-Clark State College, a team that has shown an ability to beat both the Saints and Warriors this season.
While those are the current favorites, it would not be surprising to see Montana State-Northern or Rocky Mountain College, both sitting at 6-6, go on a run and take a stab at the title. Their inconsistency could quickly swing if each team figured out a few things.
Carroll’s most consistent scoring threats are Ryan Imhoff, who leads the conference in points per game at 19.8, Match Burnham and Matt Wyman – all three matchup nightmares for most opponents.
The 6-6-and-up players pressure defenses in myriad ways, and open things up for other scorers, too.
Come Wednesday, it will be the Saints’ efficient offense and tenacious defense against the Orediggers’ upstart discipline. Hiatt said earlier this season his squad scrapped and stayed in every game they played.
Now, the Orediggers are winning games.
And the Saints are on the rise.
Only one can win the season series.