KANSAS CITY — One look at the stat sheet and offense appears to be the story of the game for Montana Western on Thursday, but head coach Steve Keller is likely more impressed with a different statistic.
The Bulldogs had six players score in double figures, defeating Southwestern Assemblies of God University 105-96 in the opening round of the NAIA men’s national basketball tournament at Municipal Stadium, but Keller can credit his defense in the win.
After watching SAGU star Joshua Swearingin pour in 20 points during the first half, including a stretch of 17 points during a 22-4 run, giving the Lions a nine-point lead, the Bulldogs defense dialed in in the second half. Swearingin, who scored 20 in the first 20 minutes, didn’t score until the 4:42 mark of the second half, when Western held a 94-79 lead.
Swearingin scored a game-high 25 points, but Western held the hot-shooting guard in check during the second half, while the offense did the rest. The Bulldogs knocked down 49 percent of their field goals, including a 10-24 performance from the 3-point line, while burying 33 of 38 free throws, many in crunch time to seal the victory.
“We stayed out on (Swearingin). We started the second half in a box-and-one, triangle-and-two stuff, which bothered them a little bit. It didn’t bother them a lot, scoring 96 points,” laughed Keller, “but it got us a couple big stops. He didn’t get good look he did in the first half. Our guys did a good job.”
Zaccheus Darko-Kelly finished with a team-high 24 points and 11 rebounds for Keller’s Bulldogs. Darko-Kelly hit five 3-pointers and made nine total field goals in the win. Dom Robinson scored 21 points, 16 in the second half, while making all 11 of his free throws and dishing six assists. Warren Helligar added 18 points, going 9-9 from the free throw line, while Kooper Kidgell added 17 points, Brandon Jones chipped in with 14 and Marcus Payne had 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Each program’s high-powered offense was on display from the opening tip, but Western sparked an early 8-0 run to grab an 11-6 lead just over four minutes into the contest. Marcus Payne and Brandon Jones each scored buckets in transition to give the Bulldogs the lead. Darko-Kelly opened his impressive shooting display with a 3-pointer, then hit another in transition after a steal on the defensive end to put the Bulldogs up 18-11. Jones’ field goal in the paint pushed Western ahead 20-11 with 12:57 remaining in the half.
SAGU’s 6-foot guard scored 15 straight points for the Lions — a pair of and-ones and three 3-pointers — in 2:22, giving SAGU a quick 32-28 lead. He added another jump shot minutes later, leading SAGU on a 22-4 run in taking a 39-30 advantage.
Kidgell knocked down a 3, then Darko-Kelly scored inside to bring Western to within 39-35, but Swearingin scored three more points to re-extend the lead. Western responded with a run of its own to end the half, outscoring the Lions 22-11 down the stretch. Darko-Kelly scored 10 points, including a pair of 3s, and Warren Helligar connected on a triple before the halftime buzzer to shoot the Bulldogs ahead 52-50.
Darko-Kelly ended the half with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists, while the Bulldogs shot an impressive 55 percent from the floor.
“That was huge because we were down nine and we went from being down nine to having the (52-50) lead at half. We didn’t lay down, we’ve been resilient all year,” Keller said. “That game was big game of runs and we got a few stops early in second half when we got the lead and that led to transition buckets for us. We gave up too much transition stuff to them, though. I think us going 33-38 from FT line was the difference.”
The second half opened much like the first, with each team scoring at will. SAGU tied the game at 57 three minutes into the half, but a 21-7 run would boost the Bulldogs ahead 86-73 with 8:12 to play. Payne’s steal on the defensive end led to a Dom Robinson-to-Warren Helligar layup and the foul.
Still, SAGU didn’t back down in the final minutes, increasing its full-court pressure defense and forcing turnovers that led to points, bringing the Lions to within eight points with 4:22 to play. But the Bulldogs broke the press inside two minutes, with Darko-Kelly throwing down a two-handed dunk that wound up being the exclamation point for Western, which advances to the second round for the second consecutive season. Western made 23 of 25 free throws in the final 12 minutes to clinch the win.
“We try to make sure we have right guys shooting free throws, too,” said Keller. “Dom and Warren are obviously good at that. That was big. I’m just proud of them. We didn’t guard really well, but offensively we were good. Dom hasn’t played five-on-five since the (conference) championship game. He hurt his back there a little bit, so we didn’t know how affective he would be. But he played great and we got the win.”
The Bulldogs await the winner of Thursday afternoon’s game between Columbia (Mo.) and Campbellsville (Ky.). That game tips off at 4 p.m. Central time on Friday afternoon.
Western recorded its 26th win of the season, a program-record for victories in a single season.
“We have to get some rest, only playing seven kids, but these guys are resilient and I expect them to show up (Friday) night against Campbellsville, a really good team, but we have a chance,” said Keller. “We can score. Remember, we played a lot of that game without Brandon Jones, he fouled out. I’m just really proud of our guys.”