KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four times Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State College have met on the men’s basketball courts this season, but it’s the fifth that matters most.
The two Frontier Conference programs meet in Monday’s NAIA Division I national semifinals with the winner advancing to its first national championship game.
Carroll and Lewis-Clark State have split the previous four meetings — the Fighting Saints winning the first two, the Warriors winning the latter two, including the Frontier Conference championship game — with three of the four games decided by double digits and the fourth a six-point Carroll win in Idaho.
The Warriors have rattled off 14 consecutive wins, becoming one of the hottest teams in the country and providing challenges for Kurt Paulson’s Fighting Saints.
“L-C State is playing well. They’ve won 14 in a row and their coach, Austin (Johnson), has found their rotation. Early in the year they lost a few games and he totally switched their lineup and brought new guys off the bench,” said Paulson. “They seem to be finding their groove, obviously, and this is Game 5 for us. We know each other very well. It’s going to come down to executing and just making plays, because we both know what each others’ game plan is going to be. The players just have to make plays, take care of the ball, hit open shots and execute the game plan.”
“They’re tough because, No. 1, they’re deep — they’re like nine or 10 guys deep. They just come at you in waves,” added Carroll senior guard Ife Kalejaiye. “They play solid defense, go inside and out, they hit 3s, they can attack the rim, they have their 6-foot-10 guy (Trystan Bradley), Dana Abe is a beast, so they’re tough. They’re good in all aspects. In that regard, we have to come play our A-game to get a win.”
Carroll has strengths of its own, including experience of deep national tournament runs in the past four years. Kalejaiye, along with fellow seniors Match Burnham and Matt Wyman, plus junior Dane Warp, have suited up at Municipal Auditorium for the Saints and understand how to advance in the tournament.
There’s also the familiarity with the Warriors, which Kalejaiye says is key.
“I think so. It’s the fifth time we’re playing them. We know their plays, they know our plays, now it’s just who wants it more and who’s willing to make the extra step to get the W, you know?” said Kalejaiye.
Kalejaiye jokes that each team will recognize the others’ play-calls on Monday night, which may or may not be an exaggeration, but the execution will be the key factor.
Carroll suffered multiple injuries and was forced into multiple lineups throughout the season, another beneficial factor as younger players were given larger roles for first-year coach Paulson.
It was also valuable to have the men’s national tournament held nearly two weeks after the Warriors defeated the Saints in the Frontier Conference championship game.
“I think you’ve seen our guys down here sharing the ball, moving it and being harder to guard,” said Paulson. “Our assist numbers are way up from what it was in the championship game, we just didn’t move the ball good enough or take the extra pass. Our assist numbers are up and we had lots of practice time from the L-C State loss in the championship to the national tournament. There were about 14-15 days in there. We got to get Matt Wyman’s knee a little stronger, some rest for some guys, some weight room time and then practice time. We just stressed moving the ball, sharing it, and down here we’ve been doing that. Our assist numbers are up and we’re playing well offensively.”
Monday marks Paulson’s second trip to the national semifinals, after the former guard joined forces with Jeff Hays, Ross Gustafson, Travis Williams and Sinan Gular in leading the 2005 Carroll College men’s team, coached by Gary Turcott, to the NAIA Fab Four.
This week has been a trip down memory lane for the first-year head coach.
“It’s very cool. Not much has changed, the arena smells the same and it brings back some great memories,” Paulson said. “It’s been fun to share it with this new group of guys and their experience in the final four run just like we did. Just making memories, man.”
Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State College will tip off around 7 p.m. MDT from Municipal Auditorium Arena, with live game coverage provided by the NAIA for a fee here.