HELENA — Late-game drama and a big-time shot from Jared Samuelson set the date.
Thanks to Samuelson’s heady put back against Montana State-Northern on Tuesday, the Battlin’ Bears secured a Frontier Conference tournament semifinals visit to No. 1-seed Carroll College men's basketball team on Friday night in the PE Center.
“Rocky has a lot of weapons, plenty of ways to score. We're going to have to play with some real zip and zeal,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said.
Samuelson finished the game by tying his season-high with 32 points. The second-leading scorer in the Frontier Conference’s has scored below his average when he’s faced the Saints three times this season. His usual 19 points per game average waned to 15.6 points. Still, the scorer will be high on the priority list for the Saints’ defense.
“Everyone in the league knows that Samuelson can have a monster night,” Cunningham said. “So whenever you play Rocky you need to be cognizant of his whereabouts.”
Rocky won in the PE Center earlier this season, but Carroll won the season series 2-1. The Saints used some of that momentum to clinch a share of the Frontier Conference regular season championship and a No. 1-seed in the tournament. It allowed the Saints a bye in the first round of the playoffs as the other six teams beat up on each other on Tuesday.
Carroll powered to the top of the conference once again on the back of the best offense in the NAIA and a disciplined, tenacious defense. The Saints lead the nation in field-goal, 3-point and free-throw percentage, and are No. 2 in points allowed.
A big reason why is senior forward Ryan Imhoff, whose campaign for player of the year has been bolstered by the regular season finish. Imhoff is No. 3 in the nation in steals per game at 2.6, all while leading the Saints in scoring at 19.9 points per game. He leads the Saints in most major stats categories, too.
A glance down the seasonal stats chart helps explain part of the offensive efficiency. Fellow starters Lorel Johnson, Matt Wyman, Ife Kalejaiye and Match Burnham all shoot 49 percent or better from the field. You take those marks and combine it with a squad committed to playing a packed-line defense and the results are a Saints team that gives itself a chance to win nearly every night.
And beyond the starters, Carroll gets quality contributions from up and down the roster, notably of late by Alejandro Santos Piqueras, who at 6-foot-8 runs the point and gives the Saints a unique matchup dilemma for opponents.
Carroll’s regular season finish created home-court advantage in the playoffs. The Saints expect to have a packed PE Center once again in their favor.
“Our fans have been phenomenal,” Cunningham said. “They've given us a huge boost. I hope they come out in droves again on Friday. Our guys really appreciate the support.”
Rocky, for all its quality play, dealt with bouts of inconsistency this season, finishing with a sub-.500 record in the conference. The Battlin’ Bears entered the postseason on a three-game losing streak, but then found a way to win up in Havre.
For all the athleticism Rocky shows, the Battlin’ Bears have not always found ways to capitalize on it. Part of that stems from their struggles from beyond the arc. Rocky is the worst 3-point shooting team in the Frontier Conference at 34 percent.
Rocky has the means to explode in the halfcourt, but when opponents bottle up the paint, Rocky relies on Chad Kananen to space the court. The senior guard is hitting 39 percent of this deep balls, but no other Battlin’ Bears player is shooting above 36 percent.
Though the last time the Battlin’ Bears defeated Carroll, the Saints struggled to score from the field, shooting well below their averages in the loss. Then, when the Saints went to Billings, Carroll shot way above its seasonal average form the field and survived a strong shooting night from Rocky, too.
When teams meet for the fourth time in one season, it’s difficult to predict what will happen. Cunningham, whose team has taken a similar approach to each game this season, knows this perhaps better than most.
“They're all battles my friend,” he said. “Getting to be about that time to lace 'em up.”