HELENA — If truth be told, the foundation for the No. 2 Carroll College men's basketball team was laid long ago.
It’s culminated in memorable moments over the past few seasons. The Frontier Conference regular season and conference tournament titles last season. Consecutive runs into the quarterfinals of the NAIA tournament. All-American players. The best start in school history (and counting).
It wasn’t a process that happened over night, so when the No. 2 Saints defeated No. 16 Montana Western 77-63 on Thursday, it wasn’t a fleeting victory, a temporary measuring stick of quality. It was a microcosm of the Saints’ foundational success.
“They’re so efficient on offense and they guard,” Western coach Steve Keller said. “They may just win every game.”
Carroll stands 15-0, and on Thursday the Saints showed the balance they haves around all-American Ryan Imhoff. Imhoff went 9-for-25 for 21 points (with nine rebounds, five steals, four assists and two blocks), laboring in the low post for the majority of the game to generate high quality shots. When Western put all of its attention on him, others flourished.
Carroll, unlike the majority of the conference, fosters, develops and reaps the rewards from its players. The Saints haven’t made it a point to look for transfers during Carson Cunningham’s tenure.
Sure, the Saints have had a few transfers, but they aren’t a focal point. Part of that is Carroll’s academic demand. The other part of it is preference and belief in their own system.
The yield shows in part when Lorel Johnson, who Cunningham has raved about this season, knocks down midrange jumpers with ease as Western opts to lay off him and gear its defense toward Imhoff.
Johnson – the basketball team’s quarterback, as Cunningham called him – got the Saints going on Thursday. His confidence in his quality has been four years in the making at Carroll where he’s played a lot of minutes each season.
“Early on I found them sagging off me a quite a bit, which insulted me a little bit,” Johnson said. “I had to take what the defense gave me.”
And Johnson’s not the only one. Ife Kalejaiye is in his third season and had a big game on Thursday. Alongside Imhoff and Johnson, seniors Oliver Carr and Patrick Colberg have spent four years building chemistry together. Ask Cunningham about those recruiting stories and he’ll tell you most members of the Saints were overlooked in one way or another, putting a serendipitous spin on their tale.
The Saints are led by upperclassmen, a group that collectively plays an efficient brand of offense and sells out on defense. The group plays a style of basketball they’ve learned over the years in a program. Sophomore Dane Warp was the only underclassman to score on Thursday.
“So many guys like Ife and Warp and Santos and more are doing nice things on both ends of the floor,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “We just want to keep developing and see where we can take this.”
On the opposite side of the court was a Western team that ran out of gas, and looked like it was still figuring out who the clear No. 2 scorer was. Dom Robinson, a transfer a season ago, has the reins as Western’s top dog. Transfers Brandon Jones and Warren Helligar both showed moments of promise, but looked like it may take some time to blend in.
The Bulldogs do have in-house talent, too, such as Zachheus Darko-Kelly, who tied for a team-high 14 points. But with new faces and the loss of guard/forward Riley King, the Bulldogs are adjusting on the fly.
“It changes rotations,” Keller said. “Riley is our best defender and best rebounder too, and leader. We’re a little fragile right now. I still think we’re talented right not to compete.”
The Saints are years in making.
And at 15-0, they’re having a year for the ages.