The Saints were a game away from being national champions.

Let that sink in for a bit.

Carroll College has seen its share of athletic excellence with six NAIA national championships from the football program.

But it's been a while.

Now, it’s the men’s basketball team’s turn to savor the success.

Even though there was no national championship, the Saints showed they are not far away and will be back for another opportunity soon.

The Saints lost to Georgetown College of Kentucky 68-48 on Tuesday night in Kansas City, Missouri. It was their first national title game in Carroll’s 107 years.

Expect this to be celebrated to the fullest. Being one of the last two teams in all of the NAIA Division I is not easy task.

First-year coach Kurt Paulson and the four seniors of Match Burnham, Matt Wyman, Ife Kalejaiye and Alejandro Santos will go down as legendary in Saints lore.

“It comes with hard work and a lot of planning,” athletic director Charlie Gross said from Kansas City as he enjoyed the week with a team. “There were a lot of individual contributions."

The Saints have been close to winning national tournament games in recent years, so it’s not totally shocking that they were here.

What makes the achievement impressive is that the program reached this level now taking on a new coach this season after former coach Carson Cunningham left for an NCAA Division I program.

There was no dip in production.

It was detailed before the national tournament how Paulson stepped into the program so quickly. He bonded with the seniors from the start, made them happy and allowed them to flourish.

“You have hire the right people to do that,” Gross said. “Kurt came in with familiarity with what to do, to do this.”

Paulson was the point guard on the last Carroll team that reached the semifinals back in 2005. So he’s been able to guide his players through the pitfalls of a long season.

Gross was confident he hired the right person less than a year ago, and even more so now.

Paulson started out coaching in Montana and knew how to recruit the area. He even learned from proven basketball minds such as Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State. 

However, the good feeling about Paulson went beyond the resume. 

“When I looked at him he had the experience and drive to compete for title,” Gross said. "When you are looking into the hiring process, you want to find that out. But you don’t know until you see it.”

What impressed Gross the most about Paulson was his ability to adapt. Losing two players early to ACL injuries — Brad King and Santos — didn’t slow the Saints.

A top-level recruit decided not to come to Carroll partly because of the coaching change, but that didn't bother the Saints. Wyman missing a month due a knee injury was only a small setback.

“The ability to adapt to personnel is impressive," Gross said. "And I could take that to his preparedness of game skills has been impressive, adapting game to game.”

Paulson changed practices weekly as players were available, or unavailable. He knew when to rest them and when to push them to improve, which allowed them to play at their peak most nights.

“He’s very business-like in approach,” Gross said. “He’s organized and focused. He minimized drama and has great communication. He is what you want in a coach.”

And in turn, Paulson helped turn out the kind of players and students Gross want to see come out of Carroll.

The team’s success was an opportunity to showcase what they’ve accomplished.

“When you look at your role as the athletic director, one of the biggest signs in the student-athlete experience is your personnel,” Gross said. “Kurt has been an outstanding addition to the athletic department. Not only on the basketball court but the tone he set with the student-athlete experience.”

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