HELENA — A quiet bus ride up I-15 left the Saints to search their souls.
The Carroll College men's basketball team fell to the Montana Tech Orediggers on Thursday, a road loss to the worst team in the Frontier Conference.
The loss centered the Saints and served as a wakeup call. If Carroll couldn’t find the right formula against Tech, the Saints had to take it upon themselves to play harder.
Saturday, the Saints unleashed their fury. It was a night scheduled for the unveiling of a new mascot, Halo, the Saint Bernard. The men hoopers upstaged it, unveiling a new passion of their own on the court.
“I was playing mad,” said Saints junior forward Matt Wyman, who led the Saints with 18 points. “I was playing angry. I was playing energized.”
The final scoreboard read 90-63 in favor of the Saints, but it was every Saints action on the court that mattered more.
Carroll dictated the game from the tip, translating Rocky turnovers into instant offense. The energy in the building swelled. As Carroll’s lead expanded, Rocky had no answer.
Two timeouts didn’t quell the Saints, and, truth be told, there may not have been any number of timeouts that could have thrown the Saints out of rhythm on Saturday, no matter the adjustment.
This very same Rocky team entered the PE Center just weeks earlier, and stymied the Saints. Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen could only blame his team’s lackluster start.
“They played very well tonight,” Dreikosen said. “We didn’t come ready. When you don’t come ready against a good team you’re probably going to get beat.”
The effort never waned. When calls went against Carroll, players didn’t wilt. When Rocky rediscovered itself in the second half and challenged the Saints, Carroll responded.
Even when the Saints’ leader, Ryan Imhoff, went to the bench with his fourth foul and 11 minutes to go, Carroll never let up.
Oliver Carr took over post-up duties, playing his strongest game of the conference slate. Carr finished 4 of 5 from the field for eight points and had four rebounds and two assists.
Many Saints reserves – in addition to sterling play from starters – gave the Saints boosts. Alex Santos checked in with 15 minutes remaining in the first half and immediately made positive impacts all over the court.
Santos, like Carr, had his breakout game in conference. Santos scored 10 points, led the team with nine rebounds, shoveled out five assists – including one pinpoint no-look pass that may still have Rocky fooled – and also corralled three steals.
When Rocky’s frustrations boiled over, resulting in one Rocky player knocking Wyman to the ground, the Saints didn’t lose their composure. They played harder.
“That’s just competitive fire,” Wyman said. “It’s both ways. I have no problem with it. We’re both just playing hard. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”
The team needed fire after Thursday. Focus and energy eluded the Saints, leading to a massive letdown.
The Saints wouldn’t fall victim to the same fate on Saturday. Carroll kept its energy up in the second half, combatting Rocky each step of the way.
“I think we all had a fire lit under us tonight, Wyman said. “We all played with extreme intensity and with fire.
“I think we just set the tone for the rest of the year. We just got hyped out there and got excited, got the ball moving around. I think that’s how we need to play. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Saturday the Saints honed a fury. With eight games left on the conference schedule, including five in the PE Center, Carroll has chances to redisplay it and make a run at a conference crown.
“We need to learn from this one and apply lessons from it,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “It’s a battle-rama in this league. Nor our attention turns to the next round.”