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Three years after heartbreak, Georgetown College cruises to NAIA championship

It’s the Tigers third title, and second under coach Chris Briggs.

Referee Photo

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This time, Georgetown College (Ky.) left the drama out.

The No. 1-ranked Tigers cruised to the NAIA championship on Tuesday, beating Carroll College (Mont.) 68-48 in a game they controlled from the tip. It was the third NAIA title in GC history, and a stark contrast from the last time the Tigers played on this stage. In the 2016 final, Mid-American Christian’s Malcolm Mann sunk the top-seeded Tigers’ title hopes with an overtime game winner with under a second left.

Returning to the final three years later — again, as the tournament’s top seed — there would be no tense moments for GC at the end. The Tigers bolted out to a 35-15 halftime lead and didn’t look back. It left eighth-year head coach Chris Briggs in a much different mood than he was on the same floor three years prior.

“I’m smiling now, so that’s a whole lot better,” he said after the game. “Three years ago was a nightmare. I wouldn’t wish that last second shot on anybody in a national title game.”

The groundwork for that smile was laid early. GC spent the first half switching up its defense, frustrating Saints senior forward Match Burnham — who entered as the tournament’s leading scorer (25.0 PPG) — into four points on one-for-eight shooting. On the whole, an efficient Carroll offense missed a number of looks from deep.

“I thought we had a lot of great looks early, obviously we didn’t shoot a great percentage,” Saints head coach Kurt Paulson told the broadcast before the start of the second half. “I just told our guys to take a couple deep breaths and chip away at the lead.”

That’s just what happened out of the break, as Saints’ junior guard Dane Warp (11 points) started the half with back-to-back baskets. That cut the lead to 16, and while GC pushed the margin back out, Burnham began to heat up midway through the second half.

The senior star (17 points) hit a three with 10:58 to yet again bring the Saints within 16 points. But on the next possession, GC point guard Eljay Cowherd (15 points, 5 assists, 6 rebounds) connected on a drive through heavy traffic to snuff out the momentum. The junior was on the attack the entire night, and threw an alley-oop to junior forward Chris Coffey (10 points) with just over two minutes left that served as an exclamation point.

Eljay Cowherd was on the attack throughout the final.
Referee Photo

On the whole, a bigger Tigers team outrebounded the Saints 45-29, and had 26-point advantage in the paint. In holding Caroll to just 30.6 percent shooting — in no small part due to junior forward Brodricks Jones defensive work on a red-hot Burnham — the Tigers held the Saints to lowest point total in the final since runner-up Wisconsin-Stevens Point scored 46 in 1984.

The Tigers entered the season ranked No. 4 in the country, and ascended to the top of the poll on the final day of the regular season. That pegged them as favorites, and Briggs talked about dealing with that pressure as GC got to Kansas City.

“You can always tell there are a handful of teams that most likely can win it, and a handful of teams that are just happy to be here,” he said. “We never want to be one of those teams just happy to be here. We had a mature approach to it and it worked out well for us.”

GC beat Rocky Mountain College (Mont.) in its opener, and then survived a three-point game against LSU Shreveport (La.) and a two-point game against Arizona Christian to advance to the semifinals. They held off a hot William Carey (Miss.) team to reach their seventh title game in program history. The Tigers previous two championships came in 2013 (under Briggs), and 1998.

For Carroll’s part, it leaves Kansas City on a down note, but with an incredible season to its name nonetheless.

After head coach Dr. Carson Cunningham left for NCAA Division I Incarnate Word in the offseason, former Saint point guard and assistant Paulson stepped in and took the program to new heights. Carroll finished year ranked No. 11 in the country and reached its first championship game in program history.

The third-seeded Saints won a close game in their NAIA tournament opener against St. Thomas (Texas), getting a clutch late three from Ife Kalejaiye. They then stymied Oklahoma City University less than 19 hours later in the 9 a.m. second round slot, powered by a 34-point effort from Burnham. The Saints stifled an explosive Pikeville (Ky.) offense in the quarterfinals, setting up a seemingly fifth game with Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho) in the semifinals.

The Frontier Conference rivals had split the season’s previous four meetings, with the Warriors picking up a 16-point win in the most recent game in the league tournament championship. The script flipped in Kansas City, with Carroll jumping out to a 10-point halftime lead, and then held on for a historic 66-55 win behind a blistering display from Burnham at the free throw line (27 points, 20-22 FT).