KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They weren’t supposed to win the conference.
Their first-year head coach wasn’t supposed to be experienced enough.
The injuries were supposed to decimate their season.
The Carroll College men’s basketball team had the odds stacked against it entering the Kurt Paulson era this winter, as the Fighting Saints heard time and again they couldn’t repeat the success of the past few seasons, and they didn’t. They surpassed them.
Paulson and the Saints will compete in the program’s first national championship game on Tuesday night, facing Georgetown College (Ky.) at Municipal Auditorium Arena in a battle of polar opposite programs.
The Tigers are making their seventh trip to the NAIA title game, having won twice, with the most athletic team amongst the 32-team bracket in Kansas City.
The Saints have never played for a national basketball championship. Carroll is the admitted underdog, though it’s a role the Saints have embraced from the time the season began to the first four wins at the national tournament.
“It’s very fun, but we still have one more to go. We don’t want to be satisfied and that’s what the message has been all day (Tuesday): ‘Let’s not be satisfied and let’s not get comfortable. Let’s keep that edge that we’ve had down here,’” said Paulson. “We’ve had an edge right from the tip of each game, something to prove, a chip on our shoulder. That comes from our three seniors (Ife Kalejaiye, Match Burnham and Matt Wyman) and Alejandro (Santos), our fourth senior who unfortunately can’t play due to injury, but they have a chip on their shoulder. They’ve made the (quarterfinals) and they wanted to get past that.
“It stemmed from me getting to the Fab Four as a player, I wanted to get past that as a leader of this group, I wanted them to do it. They did it. We’re here. We have to keep rolling and doing what we’re doing.”
“In the film room we were all talking about it, how we were picked third in our conference this year, we were expected to be down this year. We took it one game at a time and now we’re here,” added junior guard Dane Warp.
Carroll’s style — playing physical defense and getting efficient looks on offense — has frustrated opponents during the six-day national tournament. The Fighting Saints have held teams and players under their season averages, without giving up 70 points in a single game so far.
Georgetown ranked No. 9 in the nation in scoring average, 88.39 points per game, while Carroll held the No. 12 scoring defense (69.47).
“We trust completely in our coaches and the game plan they’re going to have for us, so when we get out on the court we can play pretty free. We know that as long as we execute we’ll be in good shape,” said Warp. “We’ve just been trying to have fun with it at the tournament this year, because you never know when it’s going to be your last tournament. We’ve just been trying to stay in the moment.”
The doubts, the second-guessing, the underdog role — it’s all been fuel to the fire for the Fighting Saints this season, and especially during their historic national tournament run.
As Carroll gets set to make program history by simply running onto the court Tuesday evening, the Saints do so with a newfound confidence.
“We haven’t thought about the fact that we could lose and be done at all,” said Warp. “Going into it, we knew we had to prepare for five games and we’ve been preparing for five games in practice.”
“These guys aren’t lacking confidence right now. You can see by their play, there’s no lack of confidence,” echoed Paulson. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and fight in this group. We could be playing the Georgetown Hoyas and I think these guys would have the same attitudes coming into this game.”