KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Carroll College senior forward Matt Wyman was all smiles as he watched teammate Jovan Sljivancanin sink a free throw against Oklahoma City on Friday morning.
He knew the win meant more than the other 26 victories this season.
“I gave Ife (Kalejaiye) and Match (Burnham) high fives and said, ‘Here comes another trip to the elite eight boys,’” Wyman said. “You don’t appreciate it until you make it back.”
But now the senior group is looking for more.
The quartet that features Wyman, Burnham, Kalejaiye and Alejandro Santos Piqueras has been in more NAIA Division I Tournaments than some of the teams in the field.
But with the thought that next game could be their last looming over them, they know this season is different. They are fueled by playing as one.
“We have five guys that can go off at any second,” Wyman said. “I think we are playing our best basketball this season. We are finally healthy and we are ready to go.”
When the Carroll seniors arrived at Helena under former coach Carson Cunningham, they had immediate success.
They finished with 23 wins their freshman season and reached the quarterfinals. The bar was set high for the years to come.
While Cunningham and the Saints had plenty of wins together, that success opened a door to change.
It didn’t take long for Cunningham to accept a coaching position with NCAA Division I Incarnate Word. Where would that leave Carroll?
Saints athletic director Charlie Gross didn’t waste any time bringing in Kurt Paulson to fill the job.
Paulson, just one year removed as an assistant under Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State, put his own touch on the program, installed some new sets and even brought in some new freshmen.
But he never forgot about the seniors. It was their team after all.
“They are not only so coachable, but they have pride,” Paulson said. “That’s why I’m back (here in Montana). My passion is Carroll.”
Even though the seniors entered their final campaign with a new face leading them, they remained together, whether it was after a dominant win or even when faced with adversity.
Piqueras went down for the season after tearing his ACL.
A few weeks later, Kalejaiye missed some time with an injured shin.
Then Wyman missed some time with a hyper-extended knee.
Add a few tough losses, including a 16-point loss in the Frontier Conference championship game at the PE Center, the Saints seemed like they were thrown every obstacle on their way to Kansas City.
“Now, I think we are all on the same page making the right plays, and we are just excited for one another,” Wyman said.
On the eve of their quarterfinal game against the winner of Benedictine and Pikeville, the seniors know what a spot in the final four would mean for the school and for the alumni in attendance.
But they aren’t doing it just for Carroll pride. More importantly, they are doing it for one another.
“We are passionate and we are dedicated,” Burnham said. “This group just really wants to win. It’s new, it’s fresh and it’s exciting.”