Dawgs fall in elite 8 with school best 27 wins

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Jump stop

Montana Western’s Zaccheus Darko-Kelly slides by a Cambellsville opponent during Western’s second round win at the NAIA National Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament at Kansas City, Mo. Western faced Cambellsville out of Kentucky, Graceland out of Iowa, and Southwestern Assemblies of God (SAGU) from Texas during their tourney run. Photo courtesy of Derek Wolcott, Carroll College

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In the paint

Western senior Marcus Payne rises up for two of his 11 points in the opener versus SAGU. Dillon’s Troy Scott follows the action in the background. Photo courtesy of Derek Wolcott

The University of Montana Western men’s basketball team last week capped its historic season with a surge into the Elite Eight at the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship tourney in Kansas City.

“It was a heck of a run,” said UMW Head Coach Steve Keller, whose Bulldogs reached the tourney’s third round with a 75-72 triumph over Campbellsville on Friday, following a 105-96 victory against Southwestern Assemblies of God (SAGU) the previous day.

And the Bulldogs came within a couple baskets of making their 2017–18 campaign even more distinguished, falling just four points shy of their first Final Four in a 86-82 quarterfinal loss to Graceland on Saturday.

“We played against some really good teams in Kansas City. I don’t think we could have played much better at the tourney, other than in the first half of our last game,” said Keller, referring to his team falling behind, 43-27, after the opening 20 minutes against Graceland on Saturday.

Still, the Bulldogs almost won Saturday, battling back with 55 second-half points against a team that competed in the tourney final last night after the Dillon Tribune went to press.

“Graceland is a very good team. The made big shots against us down the stretch,” said Keller, whose Dawgs briefly pushed into the lead in the second half with just over six minutes to play before finally running low on gas in their third game in three days.

“We had a couple chances late, including one that went all the way around the rim and halfway through,” added Keller of a 3-point attempt by Zaccheus Darko-Kelly that looked like it had cut Graceland’s lead to a single point with 19 seconds remaining—before somehow popping out.

Their results in Kansas City set the Bulldogs record at 27-8, establishing a new program high-water mark for wins, and perhaps enjoyment for its fans.

“I have a lot of good teams here. I don’t like to rate one ahead of the others, but this team has been really fun to watch,” said Keller, who also led the Bulldogs into the national tourney’s Elite Eight in 2013.

“When people around the community would talk to me about this team, that’s what I kept hearing—how much they enjoyed watching them this season.”

The Dawgs’ free-flowing, fun-loving brand of basketball took center stage in their first-round win over SAGU—a game in which the participants combined to score 201 points—more than in any other game at this year’s national tourney.

A 21-5 run across a seven-minute stretch of the second half took the Dawgs to from behind to in control of the contest against SAGU, the team that knocked them out of 2013 tourney.

Their second-round win over Campbellsville highlighted the Dawgs’ uncanny ability this season to sniff out a path to victory, even under the direst of circumstances.

“Frontier Conference Kent Paulson said to me before Saturday’s game, ‘You guys are never out of a game.’ And we never were—you might gets us down by 10, 12, 14 points, but we’d find a way back in,” said Keller, who has guided the Dawgs to seven of the last eight national tourneys.

“We won a lot of games like that this season, like the one against Campbellsville on Friday,” recalled Keller, of his team’s late surge to victory against the Tigers.

“I’m still not sure how we pulled that one out.”

Down almost the entire game, the Dawgs finally found a way to victory along the most unlikely path of all—the foul line, where they’d converted a meager 50 percent of their efforts prior to canning three straight free throws in the game’s final 23 seconds to gain the margin of victory.

“It just once again showed the character of the players on this team. They never quit. That’s what this team was all about.”

As they have been almost all season, the Dawgs were led at the national tourney by their core of ever-reliables.

Point guard Dom Robinson recorded 50 points, 22 assists and 18 rebounds in the Dawgs’ three games in Kansas City, where fellow UMW starters Zaccheus Darko-Kelly contributed 58 points and 23 rebounds, Brandon Jones notched 54 points and 28 boards, and Kooper Kidgell added 38 points and 10 rebounds.

Marcus Payne contributed 27 points and 17 boards in KC while battling down low against the tourney’s most formidable inside players, with the able aid of sturdy reserve forward Troy Scott.

“Marcus is a big strong kid who played tough all the time,” said Keller of the 6-foot-7-inch inside banger who punished teams on the inside every game after transferring to Montana Western from rival Montana Tech.

‘I knew about Coach Keller and the program before I came here. I knew how much success they’d had, and I really wanted to be a part of that,” said Payne of his decision to come to Dillon from Butte for his final two years of college ball.

“It’s been great. The support is unreal. The students, the community members, everybody. It’s a great place to play.”

Another upperclassmen transfer, Warren Helligar continued to provide instant defense off the bench for the Dawgs—and some microwave offense, as he did in his 18-point effort against SAGU.

“Warren meant a lot to this team. There is no doubt he was our best defender,” commented Keller of the energetic 6-foot-4-inch Helligar, who came to Western for his final year of college ball.

“A lot of games we were down at half and he shut down their leading scorer. And he had a quick dribble drive that allowed him to get to hole and opened up 3s for him.”

Western will also be bidding a fond farewell to Riley King, a starter and shutdown defender whose college career got shut down by a knee injury just 10 games into this season, but continued to contribute from the sidelines.

“It really hurt losing Riley King early this season,” said Keller of the former baseball standout in the Kansas City Royals farm system who went on to earn Frontier Conference Freshman Player of the Season honors as a basketball player at Carroll College before transferring to Montana Western.

“But he became a coach for us and helped a lot, watching for things on the floor and making suggestions. His basketball IQ is very high.”

Western will also be losing one of the most accomplished and popular players in its program’s history, senior Dom Robinson.

“We won a lot of games the last two years giving Dom the ball and letting him make decisions,” said Keller of the 5-foot-7-inch point guard who helped the Dawgs earn more than 50 wins in the past two seasons while scoring 1178 points and dishing 334 assistsand providing a key ingredient in the team’s winning, happy chemistry.

“These guys have been tight on and off floor,” said Keller, after completing his 11th season as UMW’s coach last week.

“It’s a great team to coach. I feel privileged.”


UMW scoring – Zaccheus Darko-Kelly 24, Dom Robinson 21, Warren Helligar 18, Kooper Kidgell 17, Brandon Jones 14, Marcus Payne 11, Troy Scott 0, Derek Durocher 0.

Rebounds (42) – Darko-Kelly 11, Payne 8, Jones 7. Assists (19) – Robinson 6. Steals (9) – Darko-Kelly 4, Kidgell 3. Blocks (7) – Darko-Kelly 3.



UMW scoring – Jones 22, Darko-Kelly 14, Robinson 13, Kidgell 12, Payne 8, Helligar 3, Scott 3. Rebounds (42) – Robinson 11, Darko-Kelly 11. Assists

(13) – Robinson 9. Steals (2) – Robinson

2. Blocks (8) – Payne 3, Jones 3.

WESTERN 82, GRACELAND 86 UMW scoring – Robinson 26, Darko-Kelly 20, Jones 18, Kidgell 9, Payne 8, Helligar 1, Scott 0, Durocher 0. Rebounds (32) – Jones 14. Assists (14) – Robinson 7. Steals (6) – Robinson 2, Jones 2, Darko-Kelly 2. Blocks (0).