HELENA — It hasn’t been a particularly good week for the Carroll College men’s basketball team.
Last Friday, the Saints were upset by Montana Western on their home floor.
Then, on Wednesday, they lost a game to Montana State Northern up in Havre.
“The common denominator is executing during crunch time,” Carroll coach Kurt Paulson said.
Over the last two games, the Saints have been outscored 85-69 and shot just 32 percent in the second half. The 61 points per game in the two losses also were roughly 30 points less than what they were averaging during their previous eight wins.
“I just think we need to get back to basics,” Paulson said on Friday before practice. “Things like blocking out and executing better. We had chances to win (both games).”
While the Saints found their identity by pushing the tempo, pressuring their opponent on defense and attacking the basket, Paulson said his team has gotten away from that.
“Instead of getting to the line, we took a 3-pointer,” Paulson said. “We can’t settle for things like jump shots.”
That’s not to say Carroll is not capable. it showed its ability to win big games this season when it took down teams such as nationally ranked Lewis-Clark State and Providence in close contests.
It also held on to beat Montana Tech and Rocky Mountain in overtime.
“We just have to get back to what we were doing,” Paulson said. “You have to rely on your kid to make big plays. We have guys that can do that.”
Take senior guard Dane Warp, for example.
Warp has been the team’s most consistent scorer, averaging 20 points per game and making 43 percent of his 3-point shots.
Not only has he been consistent this season, but he also has the ability to make the big shot.
Against Montana Tech back in December, he hit three free throws to send the game into overtime. Just last week, he hit a 3-pointer to take a game into overtime against Rocky Mountain.
But Paulson knows there are others capable of hitting big shots and said he will need their contribution during the long and strenuous conference season.
Freshman Forward Ifeanyi Okeke is now playing more than 20 minutes per game and has shown his ability to bring down rebounds, score inside and even pull out for an open 3-pointer if he needs to.
“The first couple of games I had the jitters but, as the season has gone on, I’ve gotten more confident game by game,” Okeke said.
He finished with just four points on Wednesday against Northern, but brought down a season-high 10 rebounds.
That’s not to say he can’t shoot. He scored 14 points against Providence a few weeks ago, and is capable of igniting a spark when he comes off the bench.
Another player that has shown improvement is guard Jonny Hillman.
Much like Okeke, he didn’t do much against Northern, but his nine points against Montana Western proved to Paulson his ability to make good decisions and have a strong presence on the court.
“Coming here, I was nervous, not knowing what to expect from the college game,” Hillman said. “Knowing what coach wants from me, I’m just gaining more confidence. I’m more comfortable with my 3-pointer and it’s showing.”
Over the last four games, Hillman has made five shots from distance, more than the total his first 11 games combined.
And Paulson couldn’t be happier with both freshmen.
“They are going to get a lot of minutes right now,” Paulson said. “And we need them. They have been playing great.”
HEADING TO GREAT FALLS
The Saints know the importance of getting back on the winning track.
But its opponent on Saturday does, too.
Providence won its first 15 games but have since have gone 2-2 to fall into a tie for second place with Carroll.
Though the Saints beat the Argos at home a few weeks ago, they haven’t had recent success at the McLaughlin Center, losing two of their last three meetings there.
And, of course, Providence features the conference’s leading scorer, Zaccheus Darko-Kelly.
“We know we are going face some adversity,” Okeke said. “It happens to every team, but it’s how we bounce back. Things get hard but we have to keep our heads up. We will be ready.”