KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Playing in the national championship has always been in the back of Carroll College senior forward Match Burnham’s mind.
On Saturday night at the Municipal Auditorium, it finally became a reality.
“So many emotions right now,” Burnham said. “This is such a great feeling. This is something we worked for all year, and we knew we had the team to do it. It just comes down to hard work and dedication.”
The Saints won 66-55 over Lewis-Clark State. To Burnham, it was new territory. For everyone, it was new territory. Carroll has never gotten past the National Semifinals.
“I’m very proud of them,” said Carroll coach Kurt Paulson. “I thought they executed the game plan just tremendously. (Lewis-Clark State) is a great team. They came in winning 14 games in a row, and they are here for a reason, but our guys held their composure.”
To make the story even better, the win came against a familiar foe. The Warriors were the same team that celebrated a Frontier Conference title at the PE Center less than a month ago.
Each team came in after winning two games. This was the rubber match.
“It was so hard, (especially) the fourth game of the tournament,” Burnham said. “Both teams’ legs are tired, and it was all about who executed the best. I thought we did a great job with it.”
But with both teams ranked nationally in the top 15 in scoring, it sure didn’t feel like it.
Lewis-Clark State came out making just one of their first nine shots. On the other side of the floor, Carroll was just 1-of-8 from the field.
By the first media time out, the Saints held a slim 4-2 lead.
Paulson stayed with his game plan and, soon enough, his team found its offense.
Burnham got involved with a couple of buckets down low, followed by a jump shot by Jovan Sljivancanin.
Sljivancanin saw an increase in minutes after senior Matt Wyman got hurt in early February.
He had already shown the coaching staff he could score and rebound by finishing with a 19-point, 18-rebound game back in Helena.
Since the team arrived in Kansas City, he has averaged a near double-double, and the semifinals were no different.
“I put a little note in my play card after watching film and it said, ‘play Jovan,’” Paulson said. “He was huge for us.”
Carroll increased its lead to as many as 15 points and maintained a comfortable 31-21 lead at halftime.
“We used our length and wanted (Lewis-Clark State) to feel us on defense,” Paulson said. “We set the tone and we just played tremendously.”
Lewis-Clark State turned up its intensity in the second half, finally finding its 3-point shot.
Carroll’s once 10-point lead dwindled to as low as 3 points, but the Saints responded as Burnham muscled his way through the Warriors’ front court.
He finished with a game-high 27 points, the majority of which came from the free-throw line.
“I thought Match’s attacking the hoop and getting to the line was just phenomenal,” Paulson said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Lewis-Clark State had no answer as Carroll started to build up its lead.
Burnham kept producing, but so was his supporting cast.
Dane Warp scored on a layup followed by a score by Sljivancanin.
Warp sealed it with a couple of free throws after Warriors’ guard Damek Mitchell was ejected for a flagrant foul.
For the players, this was a chance to go to the national title game.
For Paulson, it was redemption.
“You think about that stuff, and when you get in these situations memories come up,” Paulson said. “You want to get past that.”
As Carroll players left the arena with all smiles, they knew there was still work to be done. Georgetown College is waiting for them Tuesday night after defeating William Carey University earlier in the evening.
“We have a chance to win it all,” Carroll senior guard Ife Kaklejaiye added. “This is our turn. This is our chance to show what we can do and bring a championship home to Carroll.”