The No. 1 ranked defense in the country entered the PE Center on Saturday evening.
By the time it exited, fans would be hard-pressed to identity which team it belonged to.
The No. 4-ranked and No. 1-seeded Carroll College Saints locked down Montana State-Northern, 72-57, in the Frontier Conference semifinals.
“Fantastic team defensive effort,” Carroll coach Carson Cunningham said. “It was fun to witness from the sideline. I think the guys are playing with a tremendous competitive fire on the defensive end. I think that set the tone for them to create a cushion in the second half.”
David Straughter hit a 3 to start the Lights in the first half, but the Saints immediately struck back.
Zach Taylor put a foul on Lights forward Ryan Reeves early on, as the Saints responded to the Lights trey with a 7-0 run. Taylor had it going from every spot on the court early, hitting a 3, a pull-up jumper and getting to the foul line to score seven early points.
The Lights used a 10-2 run to retake the lead a few minutes later.
Carroll targeted William Walker as soon as he subbed in for Reeves, setting up Imhoff with either on-ball or off-ball screens, or drawing a switch and sending Taylor at the hefty forward.
When Reeves returned to the game and matched up with Wyman, the forward operated mostly on the wing, pulling the 6-foot-10 defender away from the rim at times. Wyman and Dane Warp shared the responsibility of checking the monstrous Reeves or the powerful Straughter.
“He did a fantastic job,” Taylor said. “He guards Ryan every day in practice, which is probably pretty tough. So I think he’s pretty used to it. It shows how versatile he is. He can guard guards or big guys. He’s long and athletic. He’s a problem on the defensive end for other teams.”
Taylor planted another foul on Reeves, slashing toward the rim and absorbing Reeves contact. The second foul relegated Reeves to the bench with 7:16 left in the first half.
“I try to use my speed on him and try to make it tough,” Taylor said. “He’s really long and pretty athletic, too. He’s a good shot blocker. He’s a good player. I try to pump fake him and get him in the air.”
Every time it felt like the Saints were finding breathing room in the first half, Lights guard Cameron Epps made a big play to keep it close.
Northern coach Shawn Huse continued to throw wrinkles out on defense as he had in the teams’ previous three matchups. At times, he switched to a 2-3 zone, but then committed a double team to Imhoff whenever he touched the ball. The burly forward consistently picked the double apart, generating wide-open shots as the defense failed to scramble afterward.
“He played a great game,” Taylor said. “It’s tough. He gets doubled every time. It’s probably tough. If we win, I think that’s what he cares about. I don’t think he’s a stats guy. He still gets his points and then he makes the right pass. He’s a great passer so I think he loves it.”
The Lights came out of the second half and looked sharp, building a 41-36 lead before Carroll snapped back into the game. Unfazed, the Saints played through Northern’s great start, opting not to call a timeout and regroup.
Eventually, a 3-pointer by Ife Kalejaiye gave the Saints a lead they would never relinquish.
“I don’t know what happened, honestly,” Huse said. “I’ll have to watch the film. I thought we played really good. We just hit a dry spell, which happened to us this year from time to time. Disappointing. Carroll’s got a good basketball team and they’ve got a great leader in Zach. We know we lost to a good team. It’s still disappointing.”
The Lights started to come unhinged with about 10 minutes left in the game. The Saints piled up points and outhustled Northern, scoring on put-backs, fast breaks and playing better help defense.
“I think the biggest thing was the overall level of intensity in the group,” Cunningham said. “The group action on the defensive end. Just fantastic energy, rotations, chirping. That can raise our level of play offensively. When we do trap, I think it can raise the effectiveness of the trap. It starts with that approach. The guys had it. It’s really fun from the sidelines to see them locked like that. I think the fans appreciate it, too. We had a great crowd and they had fantastic energy.”
Until that point, Northern went tit for tat with Carroll, but the final few minutes Northern looked like the team that had played three nights earlier.
“I think we just decided to pressure them a little bit,” Taylor said. “Traps and doubles. We made them play a little faster than they wanted to. They like to run a lot of sets, so it kind of took them out of their offense a little bit. We got some turnovers out of that and some buckets. We started pushing that lead up.”
The highly efficient Saints offense returned in the playoffs. Carroll shot 59 percent from the field, 60 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
Taylor finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists to go along with Imhoff’s 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. Dane Warp also cracked double figures for the Saints, putting up 10 points and pulling down three rebounds.
The Lights had 19 points from Epps, who led all scorers.
Perhaps to no one’s surprise, Cunningham left the game praising first and foremost his team’s defense. Carroll had a difficult matchup against Northern’s size, but the Saints had big play from their forwards and guards to limit what Northern could do offensively.
“Same with Warp, he had to guard big guys, too,” Cunningham said. “Wyman’s been doing that all year. Imhoff, he still gives up inches, but he’s so strong -- people tend to forget that. Lorel and Ife, their defense was magnificent. Taylor… you go down the line, Helm. Santos, I thought, was locked in defensively. That’s where it started for us. That was huge.”
Carroll finished 4-0 against MSU-Northern this season, the final victory pushing the Saints to the conference championship game, which Carroll will host on Tuesday.
As The Lights trickled out of the locker room for the final time this season, Huse offered perspective on his team’s season.
“We had a really good year,” he said. “We did a lot of really, really good things. We accomplished a lot of really good things. This was our year to have 10 conference road games and eight at home. Considering that, I thought we had a really, really good year. I’m very happy with this team and very proud of them. It’s time for us to move forward and start taking whatever measures we need to be ready for next year.”
Around the same time in Dillon, Carroll’s opponent became clear.
No. 3 seed Lewis-Clark State College upended No. 2-seed Montana Western in overtime, 101-95.
Taylor was asked his preference before the game went final on Saturday night.
“They’re both good teams,” he said. "Either one, we have to be ready for them.”