KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kurt Paulson and the Carroll College men’s basketball team remained in the locker room longer than normal. Much longer.
Paulson and the Fighting Saints were disappointed, sure, having just lost the NAIA Division I men’s basketball national championship game to powerhouse Georgetown College, 68-48, but the defeat wasn’t the only reason for their extended stay in the visitor’s locker room inside Municipal Auditorium Arena.
The biggest factor in the Saints’ camping out were the student-athletes in jerseys No. 12, 24 and 31, as well as the 6-foot-8 kid with the mop of hair and long-sleeve grey shirt who would normally be donning jersey No. 32.
Paulson wasn’t going to let the Saints leave the locker room with their heads hanging, and he certainly wasn’t going to release them until they honored for the final time Carroll’s four seniors — Match Burnham, Matt Wyman, Ife Kalejaiye and the injured Alejandro Santos Piqueras.
“That group has represented Carroll so well, done everything right on the court, off the court, in the classroom. They just set the tone for these young guys, they’re such good role models to look up to,” Paulson said after dismissing the Saints after 21 minutes behind closed doors. “It was just a joy to come in their senior year and coach these guys, even though it was the one year. They worked so hard and represented the school so well, and we’re going to miss those guys.”
Carroll’s “Fab Four” led the program to new heights over the past four years, laying the groundwork for future teams to duplicate, maybe even advance beyond, their success. The Fighting Saints won 109 games, advanced to four consecutive NAIA national tournaments, twice reaching the quarterfinals before realizing their ultimate dream on Tuesday night — playing for a national championship.
“I took a little time before the game soaking it in, because a lot of people don’t get to play in a national championship game,” said Wyman, the former Great Falls High standout. “Dane Warp and I were talking about it, we didn’t even win a state championship in high school, so to play in a national championship was really special to us. We made sure to take that all in and realize how special this group was.”
Each of the four seniors played pivotal roles over the past few seasons, first for former Carroll coach Carson Cunningham as the Saints advanced as far as the national quarterfinals, then for Paulson, the former player turned first-year head coach, breaking his mark of leading Carroll to the national semifinals in 2005.
Burnham and Wyman were named to the all-tournament team Tuesday evening, a melancholic consolation prize compared to the first-place trophy they watched the Tigers accept at half court.
It was during that moment, though more-so in the 20-plus minutes inside the locker room, the understanding set in.
“I think in the locker room it was so tough to realize that’s the last time you’re going to take that jersey off with those guys. We’ve worked for four years to get here, gave it everything we had and set the bar high for teams to come,” said Wyman. “Those guys, the freshmen and people coming back have a great chance to get here next year. They got great experience this year. I’m so thankful for the coaches, the teammates and everyone who supported us this year.”
“It was so nice to walk into a situation with a Matt Wyman, Ife and Match, Alejandro, these guys that are coachable, they do things the right way. That was great, obviously, to walk into that,” Paulson said. “We’re going to miss those guys. They set the bar for those young guys and it’s very exciting moving forward, but we want to sit back and enjoy all we accomplished with all the adversity we faced this season, reflect a little bit and then just enjoy the experience of Kansas City and making a national championship run.”
It was an unimaginable run, after playing with the likes of Zach Taylor, Carroll’s second 2,000-point scorer, and Ryan Imhoff, last season’s NAIA national player of the year. Still, after consecutive years of graduating first-team all-Americans, it was this year’s senior class that took Carroll to its greatest basketball stage, becoming four of the most decorated athletes in school history.
“You look at that bracket out there and you see your name under the national championship, ESPN3, under that chipper, and I don’t think there’s any words that describe winning four games in five days and making it to where 30 other teams didn’t get to come,” said Wyman, his eyes still red and misty. “There are a lot of great players here, a lot of great teams, so we don’t have anything to hang our heads on.”
“It definitely hurts now after getting beat in the chipper, but we’ll always remember this day,” he continued. “We’ll tell our grandkids about the run we made, we’ll be able to look at our trophy behind the glass at Carroll when we come back and visit, and we’ll always have those relationships, most importantly. We love our coaches, we love our teammates and we loved everyone that supported us. We’re all bonded together so strongly that it means that much more to us, that run means that much more.”