DILLON — It’s official.
The final lines will read No. 16 Western shot 20 of 32 from the free-throw line and No. 10 Carroll College shot 13 of 18, a plus-14 free-throw attempt advantage for the home team on Thursday night.
In an 11-point game, it may not be an outcome-changer — the Bulldogs won and were the better team on Thursday — but it certainly affected the game’s flow.
It’s a stat Western coach Steve Keller beamed about, noting his offense attached fouls to two of Carroll’s best scorers, Ryan Imhoff and Match Burnham, early in the game.
It’s also a stat Saints coach Carson Cunningham did not want to discuss.
“I don’t think there’s any benefit at all for us to talk about free-throw discrepancies,” Cunningham said after his Saints lost 88-77.
Coaches know there’s no winning a media war against officials.
And perhaps you could argue it’s tactful discourse between coaches and officials that swing calls in the favor of one team. Perhaps that’s a game within the game that Keller won on Thursday.
It felt like Thursday’s game between Carroll and Western never materialized as the Saints were buried from the free-throw line while trying to contend with a disciplined Bulldogs zone defense.
Western was whistled for 15 fouls as a team, though most of those came late when the game felt out of hand as the Bulldogs held a significant advantage. Six of those fouls were called in the game’s final 10 minutes. Five were called in the game’s final six minutes. Four in the final five minutes. You can see the pattern.
Carroll got called for 23 fouls. The Saints attempted 11 more shots than Western, but went to the free-throw line 14 fewer times.
With 11 minutes to go, Western had shot 24 free throws, while the Saints shot six. Carroll trailed by 14 when Ryan Imhoff, arguably the conference's most physical player, took his second and third free-throw attempts of the game, and the Saints took their sixth and seventh.
Maybe that’s on Imhoff. At this point, after games of growing frustrations, he needs to make illegal contact so blatantly obvious with a shot fake and a jump into the defender that officials have no choice but to call a foul. His attempts of overpowering defenders only got him to the line five times on Thursday.
At that point, Western had built a double-digit lead, and the Saints were out of offensive options when they weren’t being rewarded for aggressive takes to the hoop. That coupled with poor shooting from deep would leave any team frustrated.
Cunningham lost his cool and picked up a technical foul at about this point nagging officials for rewarding the Bulldogs with free throw attempts No. 22 and 23.
This point should be reemphasized: Western probably was the better team on the court on Thursday night. The Bulldogs shot well, were rewarded for their aggression with trips to the free-throw line and spread the ball around evenly, pushing five different scorers into double figures. They got better in the second half, knocking down 61 percent of their shots and 55 percent of their threes.
Those marks probably were good enough to beat Carroll, no matter how the game was called. Carroll College didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line (4-for-16), and further tilted in the second half.
A season ago, with Western and Carroll largely the same teams they are this season – both losing an all-American guard to graduation – both clubs averaged about 20 free throw attempts a game, with Western holding a slight edge.
For the vast majority of Thursday’s contest, Western held a double-digit advantage from the line and finished with 32 free shots.
It’s a shame the Saints-Bulldogs weren’t allowed to thrill the fans with any real drama on Thursday at Straugh Gymnasium. Both are good teams and have the means within their offenses to play compelling basketball.
They’ll have another chance in Helena in the season finale, and perhaps they’ll get a shot to entertain folks at the national tournament, baring catastrophic breakdowns by both clubs.