KANSAS CITY – It wasn't easy, but Carroll College came back from a five-point deficit to Southwestern Assemblies of God with 2:23 remaining on a three-pointer by Steven Helm and a pair of free throws from Ife Kalejaiye to tie the game at 68 and send it into overtime.
The Saints outscored SAGU 18-9 in OT and earned an 87-80 win to advance to the quarterfinals of the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Championship for the second consecutive season.
"These guys work so hard, and it is so inspiring to see how they played under the bright lights," head coach Carson Cunningham said. "You look at our team, and they really want to play and compete, and they play with a great spirit. They trust each other, they like each other, they love playing basketball and they love doing it for Carroll College."
The game was a blow-for-blow battle from the tip. It included 11 ties and 11 lead changes. After trading leads early, the Saints built a 32-26 lead with 1:54 left in the first half. SAGU then closed the half with a 10-2 run to take a 36-34 lead into the half.
The Lions continued the run into the second half and built a 44-37 lead before Carroll went on their own run and took a 46-44 lead on back-to-back buckets from Kalejaiye.
The Saints continued to add to the lead and went up 62-54 on a Dane Warp three-pointer with 8:13 left. Carroll looked poised to run away with the game, but SAGU would not let that happen.
The Lions went on a 9-0 run to regain a 63-62 lead. After a free-throw make by Zach Taylor. SAGU leading scorer Keyunta Watkins hit back-to-back buckets to put the Lions up 68-63 with 2:41 remaining. On the next possession, Kalejaiye found Helm in rhythm who buried a three to cut the lead to two. After a miss from SAGU, Watkins fouled Kalejaiye, sending him to the line. He hit both free throws to tie the game at 68.
The two teams traded possessions, but neither found a bucket and the buzzer sounded to send the game into overtime.
The Saints played just one overtime game this season, an 81-78 win over Lewis-Clark State but the Saints looked like a veteran team.
Taylor scored first, but SAGU hit a three-point play to take a 71-70 lead with 3:23 left in the game. The lead would be short-lived.
Lorel Johnson hit a three on the next possession to put the Saints up 73-71, and Kalejaiye hit another three on the Saints' next possession to put the Saints up 75-71 with 2:19 remaining.
Williams hit a three-pointer with 55 seconds left to cut the score to 80-77 but that is as close as they would come and the Saints closed out the seven-point win.
Kalejaiye scored a career-high 19 points to lead the Saints. Match Burnham, just two games back from six-week injury, scored 18 points. Taylor scored 14 points, including 12 in the second half and overtime.
With 18:29 to play in the second half, Taylor hit a three-pointer for him to surpass 2,000 career points, to become just the second player in Carroll history to surpass the mark. Despite struggling in the first half, mainly because of the stifling SAGU defense, he came alive in the second half.
"Zach Taylor knows what he is doing. He let things happen for other guys because of the defense," Cunningham said. "They focused on him, and he let other guys score and then when they get going, which opened things up for him later. He has had an exceptionable career, he is a fierce competitor, and he sees the game so well. I am just happy for him and the whole group."
Carroll was 26-48 (54.2 percent) overall and 13-25 (52 percent) from the three-point line and an astounding 22-23 (95.7 percent) from the three-point line. Carroll also tallied 20 assists on 26 made baskets, including eight assists from Lorel Johnson.
The Saints outrebounded SAGU, one of the best rebounding teams in the country, 33-27.
"I am so impressed with these young men, we outrebounded that team, and they are a great rebounding team," Cunningham said. "We only gave up three offensive rebounds in the second half, and that made a big difference. I can't say enough about the effort of the guys, Ife Kalejaiye just did some amazing things out there for us."
The Lions were 28-62 (45.2 percent) from the field and 7-23 (30.4 percent) from the three-point line. After going 7-7 from the free-throw line in the first half, SAGU went 10-18 (55.6 percent) in the second half.
Watkins scored a game-high 24 points, Josh Williams added 18, Isaak Rowe 15 and Kentton Williams scored 11.
The Saints advance to the NAIA quarterfinals for the second consecutive season. Carroll plays third-seeded Life (Ga.) who defeated the second seed Hope International (Calif.) 80-78. Dalarian Williams and Jonathan Beausejour led Life with 20 points each.
Carroll and Life will meet at 12 p.m. Central, 11 a.m. Mountain Saturday.
"It is exciting to be playing on Saturday for the second straight year," Cunningham said. "We are really looking forward to it. The preparation starts now, and we have to be ready to rock and roll at high noon. They have a fantastic player in Dalarian Williams. They shot exceptionally well in their game today. It will be a battle."
The game will be broadcast live on 94.9 ESPN Montana Radio and one ESPNMontana.com. Live video will be available on NAIANetwork.com and live stats will be available via Dakstats.