HELENA, Mont. – Every game, a team will face adversity. Wednesday, in the opening round of the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Championship, Carroll College had to play most of it without leading scorer Ryan Imhoff and honorable mention All-American Match Burnham who sat with foul trouble.Despite the foul difficulties, the Saints continued their calling card stifling defense, holding the prodigious Mustang offense 17 points below their season averagewhile shooting 52 percent from the field en route to the 82-69 win.
The two teams traded early leads, but after trailing 15-13 with 14:32 to play in the first half, Carroll went on a 15-2 run that spanned over six minutes and gave the Saints a 28-17 lead. The Mustangs cut it back to 31-26 with 4:56 left in the first half but Carroll closed on a 14-6 run to take a 45-32 lead into the break.
Imhoff tallied three fouls in the first half but was also 4-5 from the field in the first half for 12 points. Zach Taylor tallied 17 points on 7-11 shooting, he also notched five assists before the break.
The second half was back and forth battle. Imhoff picked up his fourth foul early and Burnham, playing for the first time in nearly two months, picked up his third and fourth quickly after entering the game to replace Imhoff. The rest of the team would need to step up, and they did.Steven Helm scored 12 of his 15 in the second half, including back-to-back three–pointers after Mercy cut the lead to 66-58 with 6:44 to play. Matt Wyman also came up big after the break, scoring nine points on 4-5 shooting and Alejandro Santo Piqueras added four in the second half on 2-2 shooting. Santos also came up big on the defensive end, filling in on the inside for Imhoff and Burnham.
The Saints led by as much as 17, 76-59 with 3:24 left, but three-pointers from Mount Mercy kept the game from getting out of hand. The Saints closed out the 13-point win to advance to the second round.
"I was really happy for the guys; they played tremendous defense," Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. "They chirped. They rotated. They played with passion. I'm really happy for them. They worked very hard. I think they get a lot of joy playing together."Carroll was 26-50 (52 percent) from the field, 8-21 (38.1 percent) from the three-point line and 22-24 (91.7 percent) from the free throw line. Taylor had a stellar game, notching a game-high 21 points and nine assists. He surpassed Carroll great Andy Garland for second on the all-time career scoring list with 1,996 career points.
Helm came off of the bench to score 15. Wyman had 14 points, and a game-high nine rebound and Imhoff scored 12 points in just 12 minutes of playing time.Derik Gogg scored 15 to lead Mount Mercy, and three other players had 12 points. The Mustangs were 21-51 (41.2 percent) from the field and 8-21 (38.1 percent) from the three-point line. Mercy shot well below their season average of 79 percent from the three-point line hitting just 19-29 (65.5 percent).
"This was a fun atmosphere, and I was happy for our guys to get a first-round win," said Carroll head coach Carson Cunningham. "They performed well on a national stage, and it's hard to win a single game at this event."The Saints advance to the second round and will face fourth-seeded Southwestern Assemblies of God University (Texas) in the second round. SAGU defeated Talladega (Ala.) 81-75.
The seeds held across the Cramer bracket with second-seeded Hope International staving off the upset attempt by Wiley (Texas) and earning a 61-59 win. No. 3 Life (Ga.) topped Martin Methodist (Tenn.) 71-62. The Saints are now 10-10 all-time at the NAIA Championship and advanced to the second-round for the fourth time and the second consecutive year. Carroll will face SAGU Friday at 9:45 a.m. MDT.