HELENA -- If defense wins championships, it most certainly wins semifinals.
The top-seeded Carroll College Saints rode a strong defensive performance to a 79-67 win over fifth-seeded Rocky Mountain College to advance to the Frontier Conference championship, which will be played on Monday in the PE Center.
“We know we’re at our best when we’re playing defense and we’re all locked in,” said Saints junior defensive specialist Ife Kalejaiye, who finished with 13 points and three steals. “We have a seasoned group and we’re all older, so we know if we just stick to the principles and stick to what we practiced every day we’re good.”
A sluggish first half finally eased when the Saints (26-5) took advantages of 12 turnovers by the Battlin’ Bears. Carroll took advantage on a series of runouts, most notably by Matt Wyman, who threw down a thunderous dunk in transition. What appeared to be a tight game became a nine-point Carroll advantage at halftime.
And then the Battlin’ Bears fought back.
“We didn’t play with a lot of confidence in the first half,” Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen said. “That’s when we were turning the ball over. We were tentative. You have to come out and play aggressive. I felt like we did that a lot better in the second half.”
The Battlin’ Bears started the second half on a 13-5 run. Rocky made sure to get out to a fast start, but the Saints’ quickly responded.
Ryan Imhoff, who finished with a team-high 18 points, made a shot in the post, and a Lorel Johnson fall-away jumper gave the Saints a multiple possession lead.
Jared Samuelson, who came into Helena a hero of the Battlin’ Bears after scoring 32 points in the quarterfinals -- including a game-winner -- crammed a huge dunk between two Saints defender, but Carroll didn’t let the play linger. What looked to be a start of something for Rocky quickly faded.
Burnham drilled a three-pointer seconds later and gave the Saints an eight-point lead.
Then, after a Rocky basket, Matt Wyman found a hole in Rocky’s zone, gathered himself after receiving a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk.
Austin Payne tried to take Alex Santos off the dribble minutes later, but Santos met him under the rim and checked his shot. As he jogged back down the court, he treated the Saints’ fan section with a Dikembe Mutumbo finger wag.
“The crowd went crazy and now for us it’s like we’re rolling,” Kalejaiye said.
A timeout with six minutes left allowed the Saints to draw up a play, and Santos found Kalejaiye for a wide-open layup to give the Saints a 10-point lead.
“I think that just comes with being a veteran group and seeing everything,” Johnson said of his team’s execution down the stretch. “When we have a big lead we stay locked in and try not to get caught up in the atmosphere, although it’s very hard. I think our experience has a lot of to do with what we were able to do.”
Rocky immediately responded with a Craig Wilmore three pointer and then a Satchel McDonald dunk in transition, cutting the lead down to five. The quick 5-0 spurt forced a timeout.
Carroll didn’t convert on its next possession and Wilmore scored a difficult, hanging layup to draw Rocky within three. Wilmore was Rocky’s strongest scorer on the evening, hitting 7-of-11 shots for 21 points and accumulating nine rebounds.
Burnham bodied up to the Bears on the next trip down and scored a physical layup.
With the clock running out, Burnham attempted to drive to the rim. He stumbled on his way and barely managed a pass out to the wing where a waiting Santos had no choice but to fire.
Santos sunk the three and Carroll had an eight-point pint with two minutes left.
Latrelle Franklin scored a quick layup to bring Rocky back within six.
“It wasn’t the last minutes of the game that won or lost the game,” Dreikosen said. “We just turned the ball over too much in the first half. Our defense was pretty solid all night. The second half it got away a little bit.”
Out of a timeout, the Saints crushed Rocky’s full-court press, as Wyman bled out the backside for a dunk. The next trip down, the Saints nabbed a steal and essentially sealed the game.
Kalejaiye sunk two free throws, and then Johnson forced another steal.
The Saints made the big plays to close it out.
“I was impressed by the Fighting Saints’ ability to make big plays down the stretch on both ends of the floor,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham. “They showed guts. Rocky played tough; hit some impressive shots. They’re challenging to deal with.”
For Rocky, it’s the final chapter to their season, one that finished at 18-14. Even with bright spots, Dreikosen knows he can’t begin writing next season’s book just yet.
“We got great kids in our program and I’m proud of that,” Dreikosen said. “It don’t matter who you got coming back in the Frontier. Everybody’s going to reload. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be the great team next year.”
Carroll gets a third game with Western on Monday in the championship. The Bulldogs defeated Lewis-Clark State 91-85 in Dillon on Friday to advance to the championship.
“Now it’s on to another mighty challenge on Monday,” Cunningham said. “We’re hoping our great fans will come out and make some noise.”