Brandon Cotton

Providence point guard Brandon Cotton goes up for a layup during a game against Carroll in Great Falls on Saturday night.

GREAT FALLS — Carroll College’s Kurt Paulson has been a part of plenty of big games.

He’s celebrated championships and he has celebrated the victories.

But now, as a coach, he’s learning how to handle losses.

The Saints left the University of Providence with a 74-66 defeat at the McLaughlin Athletic Center on Saturday night .

It was the first time in Paulson’s coaching tenure at Carroll that he has suffered three consecutive losses.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Paulson said. “We were finding ways to win that first stretch of the conference and now we are not.”

Two weeks ago, Carroll sat alone atop of the Frontier Conference with wins against teams such as Providence, Lewis-Clark State and Montana Tech.

Now, the Saints are in a tie with Montana Tech for third place and two games behind conference-leading Lewis-Clark State with eight games to go.

“I don’t think it’s panic time, but we need to regroup. We got away from what we were doing (earlier this season),” Carroll point guard Shamrock Campbell said. “We just need to stay together.”

For the majority of the season, Paulson has started freshman Brendan Temple at the center position.

But he decided to make a change and replaced Temple with Ifeanyi Okeke.

The idea was for Okeke to guard Argos’ superstar Zaccheus Darko-Kelly.

“I talked to my travel ball coach (down in California) to see if he had any tips on how to stop a player like that,” Okeke said. “(Darko-Kelly) was pulling deep last game and hit a couple of threes, so I was there to contest every shot and also wanted to force him to his left hand.”

The game plan worked.

By halftime, Darko Kelly had scored just four points and was 0-for-6 from 3-point range.

The plan was working and, on offense, the Saints were executing.

Providence came out with the momentum, and while Darko-Kelly showed very little offense, point guard Brandon Cotton took the reins.

He made five of his first six shots and the Argos held a 20-12 lead.

Carroll answered with shots from Dennis Flowers III, Jovan Sljivancanin and Gaven Ramirez.

The Saints finally took the lead with 6:26 left in the first half. With a few more scores from Sljivancanin, they eventually extended it to 45-38 halftime lead.

He finished scoring all 12 of his points in the first half.

Carroll held onto its lead for the majority of the second half, until Darko-Kelly started to hit shots.

The Argos cut the game down to a one-point deficit multiple times but, each time, Saints’ senior guard Dane Warp answered.

His 15 points and 10 rebounds did not go unnoticed, but he was slowly quieted when Providence went on a run. The game hit its climax when the crowd exploded in celebration just after Rashee Stocks hit a 3-pointer with 3:59 left.

That was also the start of the Saints’ downfall.

Providence hit a 3-pointer in the corner to put the Argos up 66-62, and Jaxon Hashley muscled his way inside to go ahead 68-62.

Paulson just stood in front of his bench as he watched Darko-Kelly seal the game with a monster break away dunk.

Darko-Kelly finished the game making just 26 percent of his shots but was on a verge of a triple double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and eight assist.

“We just couldn't execute our plays and weren’t there defensively,” Okeke said.

When the Saints get back to Helena, Paulson will have to find a way to get back on track. The program hasn’t lost three games in a row since the 2015-16 season.

“We have to tweak some things and put ourselves in situations where we can make plays down the stretch,” Paulson said.

Carroll will look to turn things around when it travels to Billings next Wednesday for a rematch with Rocky Mountain.

The Battlin’ Bears pushed Carroll into triple overtime during their first meeting, and narrowly lost to Lewis-Clark State hours before the Providence game.

“We have to get back to work,” Campbell said. “Now it’s time for some hard work.”

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Ryan Kuhn covers Carroll College athletics for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Email him at ryan.kuhn@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @rskuhn

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