HELENA — The University of Providence men’s basketball team came into the PE Center with one of the NAIA’s best.
Junior Zaccheus Darko-Kelly entered Saturday’s game against Carroll College ranked seventh in the nation in scoring and leads the Argos in all offensive categories.
Saints coach Kurt Paulson said it was going to have to be a team effort to take down Darko-Kelly and the No. 7 Argos.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Carroll had five players finish in double figures as they handed Providence a 93-88 loss; it’s first of the year.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” Paulson said. “There was a lot of adversity in that game but we held them off. We have a young group but games like these really help their growth.”
Providence (15-1, 3-1 Frontier) was just two days removed from cruising past Montana State-Northern by 35 points back in Great Falls.
But the Saints didn’t show any intimidation defending their home court and they quickly jumped out to 15-4 lead.
If the lead wasn’t enough, an alley-oop from Dennis Flowers III to Ifeanyi Okeke brought the fans to their feet.
“We ran the same play before and Dennis saw me but kind of hesitated,” Okeke said. “I just told him to throw it and we made the play.”
Darko-Kelly was quiet for the Argos early but eventually woke up. with a shot inside to cut the deficit down to 17-14 with 12 minutes left in the first half and hitting a 3-pointer to put his team ahead.
The Saints (13-3, 4-0 Frontier) rallied as sophomore Jovan Sljivancanin became involved.
He scored a put back to put the Saints ahead by six points.
But the Argos did not go away.
Sljivancanin turned up the defense on Darko-Kelly but even putting a hand in his face, still resulted in back-to-back 3-pointers.
Darko-Kelly finished with a game-high 33 points and added nine rebounds and six assists.
Sljivancanin was stunned.
“He is one of the best players I have ever played against,” Sljivancanin said. “Those threes he hit were just on another level.”
But despite Darko-Kelly’s stats including 11 first-half points, the Argos still trailed 43-39 at halftime.
Carroll was led by Warp’s 13 points at halftime but Paulson was proud of his younger players.
“It was Ifeanyi’s defense, Sayer Patton hitting a 3-pointer, a lot of guys were stepping up,” Paulson said.
Both teams kept the game close early in the second half.
Darko-Kelly continued to impress hitting a 3-pointer to put Providence within a score, but quick retaliations by Warp and Flowers gave the Saints some breathing room for the first time since the opening minutes.
Providence battled back but still couldn’t catch the Saints.
It seemed like everyone was making shots.
Take freshman Jonny Hillman for example who came off the bench and hit a 3-pointer in the corner with just over three minutes left.
Coming in, he was only averaging 4.6 points per game. He finished with seven points.
“Coach was just teaching us to move without the ball and it payed off after Jovan drove and found me,” Hillman said. “It was a great pass.”
Late in the game, Providence’s emotions got the best of it as they were handed out two technicals to Jaxon Hashley and coach Steve Keller.
A Okeke layup that once again ignited the crowd and three consecutive free throws by Shamrock Campbell was the turning point of the game.
“Our guys kept their composure and that comes with experience,” Paulson said. “We have good kids and we love having them at Carroll.”
While Sljivancanin put up gaudy numbers that rivaled Darko-Kelly, the Saints’ role players also shined through.
Campbell and Warp each finished with 17 points while Okeke had 11 points off the bench.
Providence had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds but Jacob Wetzel’s 3-pointer fell way short.
All Sljivancanin had to do was put up a final layup as the buzzer sounded.
“This was a really big win for us,” said Sljivancanin who finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. “We were getting ready for this game all week and I’m just proud of this team.”
Now the Saints can rest, but not too long.
They travel to Billings to face Rocky Mountain on Wednesday.
Providence travels to Butte next Thursday.
So when will these teams meet up again?
Two weeks at the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.