KANSAS CITY – And so the March began.
Zach Taylor put up 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds and the No. 1-seeded Carroll College Saints handled Mount Mercy of Iowa 82-69 on Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Round 1 of the NAIA national tournament.
“I was really happy for the guys; they played tremendous defense,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “They chirped. They rotated. They played with passion. I’m really happy for them. They worked very hard. I think they get a lot of joy playing together.”
On a night when foul trouble followed Ryan Imhoff, who otherwise had a solid game, and sophomore Match Burnham, who returned from returned from a wrist injury, it was freshman guard Steven Helm’s 15 points, Matt Wyman’s 14 points and nine rebounds, and the Saints’ collective defense that hindered the Mustangs.
As the Mustangs made their debut at the NAIA Division I national tournament, the bright lights and larger arena affected them. The group from Iowa shot 41 percent from the field as the Saints shot 52 percent.
“They’re really good,” Mount Mercy coach Aaron Jennings said. “They were very good in ball screens. We were able to maybe guard some of their plays, stuff they were running, but then just individually they got us in into some isolation stuff. They were able to get a little separation and knock down shots. If we want to give up anything, it’s giving up a long two or make them shoot it off the dribble. They did and they made those baskets. They made their free throws, and then we miss 10 or 11.”
Carroll continued its usual efficient ways, hitting on 52 percent of its shots, hitting 38 percent of its 3s and knocking down 92 percent of its free throws.
The Saints built up a lead in the first half and then maintained pace with the bruising Mustangs in the second.
Carroll put Mount Mercy in a pick and roll on its first three first possessions involving Taylor and Imhoff, the final play designed to get Imhoff a backdoor look or deep post positioning. Imhoff, just as he did in the Frontier Conference championship game, got the game started flawlessly, nailing his first four field goals and four free throws. A pair of ticky-tack foul calls gave Imhoff two and relegated him to the bench. While it looked like it would be another powerful night for the talented junior, Imhoff could never shake his foul trouble, and finished with 12 points.
His exit paved the way for Burnham’s return to the court. Burnham had dealt with a fractured wrist, and had not played since mid-January. The sophomore forward had his cast removed last week and had a quick week of practice to get back into the swing of things. He finished 2 of 7 for seven points in 12 minutes of play.
“I thought he played with great energy and zeal,” Cunningham said. “He looks like his usual self. Tremendous contributions from a whole slew of guys while we battled through foul trouble. I’m really happy for them.”
No one would ever call the Saints’ late-season injuries a blessing, but the seasonal development of their depth came into play on Day 1. Carroll entered the season touted as a team whose length and athleticism would boggle opponents. When the Saints lost chunks of their front court, they learned how to play with smaller lineups and maintain a flow and effective style of play.
Wednesday, with Imhoff and Burnham plagued by fouls, the Saints hardly missed a beat.
When Imhoff went to the bench, Taylor produced, dicing the Mustangs’ defense through a series of pick and rolls. Taylor shred the Mustangs from mid-range and deep, knocking down most of his shots on 9 of 17 shooting for 21 points.
Imhoff picked up his fourth foul with about 17 minutes left in the second half, but Taylor, Helm, Wyman and Co. never let the Mustangs get any closer than within eight points.
Helm’s 3-pointer sent the Saints lead back to 11, and then his second 3-pointer a few minutes later
“They hit us early and we just didn’t recover,” Jennings said.
The Saints move on to face No. 4-seed Southwestern Assemblies of God University, which defeated No. 5-seed Talladega earlier in the day, 81-75.
“We’re happy to be able to play again,” Cunningham said. “It will be another battle royale.”