HELENA — In each of its two wins needed to advance to Kansas City and the NAIA National Championship Tournament Round of 16, the Carroll men’s basketball team has followed a similar formula revolving around throwing the ball inside an increased amount.
“Usually at practice coach is yelling at the guards to get the ball inside to either me, Brendan, Jovan or Murat, so the message is real clear for the guards,” sophomore Ifeanyi Okeke said. “When I’m out on the perimeter, I try to get it inside when the guards don’t, but the message is real clear.”
Saturday’s win over Arizona Christian took 83 points from the Saints’ offense, 41 percent of which came on buckets inside the painted area. The day before, Carroll drubbed Texas Wesleyan and found 47 percent of its 85 points in the paint. That came only days after the Saints fell to Providence in the Frontier Conference Tournament Championship, a game in which Carroll shot just 33.3 percent overall and managed only 10 points in the paint in the first half.
“We were just so much more aggressive offensively in Lewiston than we were up in that championship game in Great Falls,” Saints head coach Kurt Paulson said. “We started the game in Great Falls shooting outside shots and settling for those, but that wasn’t good enough in the championship. You needed free throws, you needed baskets at the rim, lay-ups, and-ones in order to beat Providence and we didn’t do that.”
Since that game, however, getting post touches on every possession possible has been an important piece to the Saints’ success. In both opening site games in Lewiston, Idaho, Carroll shot better than 50 percent from the field and saw Okeke break into double digit points in back-to-back games for just the second time all season. That included a season-high 13 points against Arizona Christian on Saturday.
“Just trying to stick with the game plan right now is essential,” Okeke said. “I feel like the whole year we’ve had games where we didn’t stick with it and the results were not in our favor. So I feel like now, when it’s win or go home, whatever the game plan is you just gotta stick with it and I feel like the results will come. Getting the ball inside we’ve seen results, obviously. We saw the results against ACU, we saw the results against Texas Wesleyan, just gotta keep that rolling.”
Okeke has not been alone scoring on the inside. That is also where junior Jovan Sljivancanin does a lot of his scoring, as well as sophomore Brendan Temple. Working around a little bit of foul trouble last weekend, Temple still scored eight points against Arizona Christian, doubling the four points he chipped in against Texas Wesleyan.
“From my perspective, I’m going to enjoy getting the ball more,” Temple said. “I think it just takes a lot of pressure off the guards, makes the defense sink in so we can get the guards more open shots...Just be patient [once you get the ball]. You don’t have to go in there and force anything. Just whatever comes to you to make the best play possible.”
Both Okeke and Temple are solid passers, too, combining for 42 assists so far this season. Okeke has also helped fill the role of being a spark plug off the bench with his length and ability to guard just about any position on the court when called upon. He has 15 blocks to his credit through 26 games, but also 14 steals while shooting 44 percent from the field.
With his wealth of athleticism, Okeke does not need much room to get off a thunderous dunk that juices the team up and gets everyone going. He pulled that off again on Saturday against Arizona Christian.
“It’s an energy-giver I feel like,” Okeke said of his dunks. “There’s very few guys on the team that can do it in those positions and those situations. I feel like whenever I get the opportunity to, [I] should just do it, because it really helps lift the team up.”
Carroll will need plenty of that energy on Friday when it faces the No. 2 seed in the Round of 16 in William Penn. A top-five team in 12 different statistical categories, including scoring offense, offensive rebounds per game, rebound margin and scoring margin, the Statesmen figure to be a tough out in the first round.
Nevertheless, the Saints took down a top-five team in the nation in Arizona Christian to reach this point and will once again need to lean on their defense and inside-out scoring approach.
On the interior, William Penn plays seniors Nathan Gehring and Eddie Daley significant amounts. Gehring is averaging 10.5 points per game, while Daley pulls down over seven rebounds per contest to go with his nine points. The duo also shoots north of 53 percent and has combined for 64 blocks this season.
“Gotta be more physical than them,” Temple said in regards to slowing them down. “Let them know you’re there...I tend to pick up those early fouls in the game. So I just gotta keep my composure, play it smart, but still make an impact.”
Carroll is hoping it can mirror its extended run in the NAIA National Championship Tournament from two seasons ago, and getting good production once again from its big men will be important.
Twenty-six points from junior guard Shamrock Campbell would also help, but with the interior players playing well, it could continue opening up more opportunities on the outside.
The Saints have been in Kansas City, Missouri since Tuesday getting themselves ready for Friday night’s matchup. That has included practices designed to help the players’ bodies maintain their preparedness for back-to-back games.
“It’s different here,” Okeke said. “Obviously we’re playing a lot of games back-to-back, so as far as practice, we’re trying to play a lot so that our legs and bodies get used to it when game time does come. Really just watching film, trying to get the personnel [down]. Obviously this is a team we’ve never seen play up until the film we watched today...We ran some of their offense [Wednesday] in practice...It’s game-by-game, so can’t worry about anybody else, gotta take care of them to move on.”
Carroll is slated to play William Penn on Friday at 6:15 p.m. in Kansas City, Missouri’s Municipal Auditorium.