HELENA – Ryan Imhoff remained stoic during the postgame press conference. Eventually though, the Carroll College all-American couldn’t help but grin.
Imhoff scored 21 points to go with nine rebounds, five steals, four assists and two blocks as No. 2 Carroll College defeated rival Montana Western 77-63 Thursday night at the P.E. Center. The Bulldogs were ranked 16th in the NAIA.
“It was definitely a physical game. They threw a lot of guys at me and they had some fresh guys. It was very physical,” said Imhoff. “I was missing some little bunnies, but eventually I started finding my teammates and they wre making plays. Coach (Carson Cunningham) called my number and I kept trying to go at them.”
Senior guard Lorel Johnson provided the spark for Carroll early, scoring nine of the team’s first 18 points as the Saints built an eight-point advantage early in the half. Johnson finished the game with 13 points, while providing suffocating defense on Western star Dom Robinson.
“Early on I noticed they were sagging off me a bit, so I knew at any point I could get my midrange on,” said Johnson. “It turns out when Imhoff and I were playing with the ball screen, I was beyond wide open because they were sagging off me. I just took what the defense gave me.”
Thursday’s contest was the latest in a bitter rivalry between the Saints and Bulldogs. Each team qualified for the national tournament last year, a season that saw Western win twice in Helena, and questions continually arise about which program is king in the Frontier Conference.
Thursday night, that honor belonged to the Saints, who jumped to 15-0, the best start in program history.
“Right now, we know it’s happening, but, at least for me, it’s kind of hard for me to comprehend it all,” said Johnson. “I think at the end of the season when we look back at the first 15 games we played, I’ll have more to say. Rigth now, we’re still in the middle of the season and we have a way to go. We still have stuff to prove and our team motto is, ‘We’re just getting started.’ We have to keep that going.”
“It’s great, but like Lorel said, it’s kind of weird trying to look at it while you’re a part of it,” added Imhoff. “We’re trying to take it game by game. I mean, we have a game in two days, so we’re trying to focus on that. We have practice early (Friday) morning, so we’ll get to that.”
Imhoff said Thursday’s win was important because it was “a defensive game” and each team upped the ante defensively in the second half. Following Carroll’s 40-34 lead at the break, each team struggled in the early minutes of the second, but the Saints went on a 13-3 run over a six-minute stretch that put them in control.
Ife Kalejaiye’s steal and assist to Dane Warp ignited the run, which saw Imhoff start a fast break and curve a pass through three Western defenders right into the hands of a streaking Warp, bringing the Carroll crowd to its feet.
“I just saw Dane and took a chance on it. I threw it and hoped for the best,” laughed Imhoff. “I threw one in the first half to Matt (Wyman) that I turned over and Carson (Cunningham) had that look, it was reminiscent of my freshman-year days, that’s something he would say. So I had to redeem myself.”
Zaccheus Darko-Kelly and Warren Helligar netted 14 points apiece for Western (11-3, 1-2). The Bulldogs look to bounce back Saturday at Rocky Mountain College. The Battlin’ Bears defeated No. 10 Lewis-Clark State 86-80. Carroll hosts the Warriors Saturday evening in a top-10 affair.
“They come in here and we expect the same thing like Western, they’re going to give us their best and we’re going to give them our best. We’ll see where that takes us,” said Imhoff.