KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Carroll College used a strong defensive performance on its way to a 66-55 win over Lewis-Clark State in the semifinal round of the NAIA Division I men’s basketball tournament at Municipal Auditorium on Monday.
The Saints will play Georgetown College (Ky.) for the national championship on Tuesday.
“I just thought our guys held our composure. I think they got (the lead) down to five, they were making runs and we only had four timeouts in the game with the media timeouts coming into play, so we had to use those wisely and stop their runs, and the guys always answered,” said Carroll head coach Kurt Paulson. “When they made their runs, we answered. I thought Match Burnham’s free throws and attacking at the hoop was just phenomenal. That was kind of the difference in the game.”
Carroll and Lewis-Clark, the Frontier Conference foes meeting for the fifth time this season, both got off to slow starts Monday. The two teams combined for 14 points, an 8-6 Lewis-Clark lead, after the opening eight minutes, but the Saints broke through, using a stifling defense to build an early double-digit lead. Carroll held the Warriors to just 8-of-30 shooting in the first half and used a 14-0 run to jump ahead 20-8 with 7:24 remaining until halftime.
That lead ballooned to 15 on a Shamrock Campbell jump shot as Carroll took a 31-21 lead into the halftime break.
“I can’t tell you the game plan going in, but you saw our pressure on those guys all night. They always had bodies around them, we used our length,” said Paulson, who is in his first season coaching the Saints. “We just wanted them to feel us on defense, especially early. We set the tone, and then I thought some of our young guys really set the tone. Eetu Villa’s dunk was very inspiring for our guys. They just played tremendously in the first half on defense, 21 points.”
“It’s so hard. Fourth game of the tournament, man, it’s so tough,” added Burnham, Carroll’s senior forward. “Both teams’ legs are tired, it’s just about execution, whoever executes the best. I think we did a good job of that, especially defensively.”
Burnham had 13 points at halftime, while Jovan Sljivancanin came off the bench to provide a spark with eight points and four rebounds.
But after ending the half with a steal and fast-break layup to slice the deficit to 10, Lewis-Clark opened the second half with a 4-0 run, eventually trimming the lead to three, 49-46, following a pair of Trystan Bradley free throws. Carroll seemingly had an answer every time, though, hitting clutch free throws and baskets to outscore the Warriors 17-9 in the final 7:41.
“We knew they were going to make a run. They’re a great team, they’re here for a reason,” said Burnham. “We’ve played them five times now, so it’s all about weathering the storm, trying to get stops on defense, but we knew their run was going to come.”
Burnham scored a game-high 27 points to go with 10 rebounds, hitting 20 of 22 free throws. The Saints made 25 of 27 from the charity stripe overall. Sljivancanin added 12 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
“I put a little note in my play card, just watching our films from the first game, the second game and the third game down here. The little note said, ‘Play Jovan.’ We played Jovan and he was huge for us,” said Paulson.
As a team, Carroll made less than 41 percent of its shots (20 of 49), but the Saints held the Warriors to a 19-of-56 performance (34 percent).
The game did get chippy, though, as the Saints ultimately extended their lead late in the second half. After Warriors star forward Dana Abe fouled out with 4:58 to play in the game, Burnham grabbed a loose ball and was surrounded by three Lewis-Clark players, eventually catching an elbow to the upper body from Race Martin.
In the final minute, with the game well in hand, Damek Mitchell was given a Flagrant 1 foul after shoving Warp on a layup attempt, and was immediately ejected from the game.
“It starts getting emotional, end of the game, but trying to hold it in check as much as possible, but that is tough sometimes, especially with such familiar foes,” said Burnham.
Carroll will be making the first championship appearance in program history.
“Our seniors, they definitely wanted to win that (quarterfinal) round because they hadn’t got past that round. They did that to get here,” said Paulson. “For me, personally, just being a player at the NAIA national tournament in 2005, we made it to this point and lost in the (Fab Four), so you think about that stuff, not daily, but when you get in these situations it comes up, the memories, and you want to get past that final four and see what it smells like to be in the national championship.”
“It’s amazing, this is what we worked for. Since we got here as freshmen, we always talked about winning a natty,” added Burnham. “My last high school game was a state championship, unfortunately we didn’t win that, so I’m trying to get a little redemption this time. We just have to play hard and do our thing.”
Lewis-Clark finishes its season with a record of 30-7. Andre McCowan led the Warriors with 10 points.
Carroll (29-7) and Georgetown (32-4) will tip off at 7 p.m. (MDT) Tuesday. Georgetown defeated William Carey 94-83 in Monday’s early semifinal game.