HELENA — Hot first-half shooting and strong defense propelled the Lewis-Clark State men’s basketball team to the Frontier Conference title on Tuesday night in Helena, as the Warriors topped Carroll College, 76-60.
Lewis-Clark came out on fire in the first half, hitting 8 of 16 attempts from 3-point land and building a 42-30 advantage at the break.
“We say play inside-out,” Lewis-Clark head coach Austin Johnson said. “There’s one that sticks out. The ball must have been passed five or six times and ended up in a wide-open 3 for us. We say play inside-out and those are higher percentage 3s for us. Six or seven of our eight 3s in the first half that we made were wide open because they were two or three extra passes.”
“Our guys were really moving the ball (Tuesday). It was inside-out 3s. That’s the most important thing for us, is we were taking good 3s, not contested,” Warriors senior guard Derrick White said. “We punched the ball inside early, which opened up a lot of things for us. It really gave us a confidence booster seeing the ball go through the rim.”
As hot as the Warriors were from downtown in the first half, they were equally cold in the second. The cold spell from beyond the arc didn’t affect Lewis-Clark offensively, though, as the Warriors relentlessly attacked the rim in the second half.
At one point, Carroll trailed 50-33 before it mounted a comeback. The Saints cut the deficit to less than 10 points a handful of times, but with every run Carroll made, Lewis-Clark had an answer. Carroll turned on its full-court press in the second half, but White was able to get downhill routinely and put pressure on the Saints.
Defense, however, is where Lewis-Clark made its mark on Tuesday night. The Warriors made a conscious effort to stay down on shot fakes and make the Saints work for every basket. It worked, as Carroll shot just 38.3 percent on the night and made just two of its 14 3-point attempts. Lewis-Clark was particularly tough on Dane Warp, who finished with 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting and had seven turnovers.
“They were sharing the ball and hard to guard. On the other end, we just didn’t have as many assists as we needed to to move the ball for us and get clean looks. Give them credit for their pressure defense,” Carroll head coach Kurt Paulson said.
“Defensively, these guys have bought in. We have some offensive pieces, we have some athleticism, we look great in warmups, but we’ve talked to our guys that that’s fool’s gold,” Johnson said. “The real stuff is, can you defend in the half court? (Tuesday) is another example of us being able to do that. … Selfishly, I want people to recognize us as a good defensive team. That’s what we hang our hat on, that’s what we want to be known for.”
In the game’s closing moments, senior Dana Abe rose up and punched a thunderous dunk home — a perfect exclamation point to the Warriors’ Frontier Conference title.
“That play defined our hustle, our grit, our mentality. I think that play really set the tone that we did it, we’ve arrived,” White said.
White led all scorers with 22 points, shooting 8 for 14 from the field. Damek Mitchell had 14 points, five assists, four rebounds and four steals. Dana Abe added 14, too. Match Burnham and Matt Wyman led Carroll with 15 apiece.
Lewis-Clark is granted the Frontier Conference’s automatic bid to the NAIA national tournament March 20-26 in Kansas City, Mo. The Warriors will enter on an 11-game win streak. Carroll will need an at-large bid to qualify, which the ninth-ranked Saints should attain. Both the Saints and Warriors will find out their tournament seeding on March 13.