LEWISTON, Idaho – Thursday night’s clash with No. 7 Westminster College was a prove-it game for the undefeated and 11th-ranked Lewis-Clark State College men’s basketball team.
A win would cement the Warriors as legitimate contenders nationally in the NAIA, and give them a huge early boost in the Frontier Conference race as well.
Done and done.
Lewis-Clark State (17-0, 3-0 Frontier Conference) rode 9-for-10 shooting performances by junior guard Jacob Champoux and senior forward Danny Marshall, and shut down every late run the Griffins tried to make in a scintillating 80-75 victory in front of 1,334 at the Activity Center.
That attendance is the highest total at LCSC since Feb. 12, 2011, and the fans that came out for Dollar Night saw a classic battle between two elite teams.
“There were moments where I was on the bench just enjoying watching the game. It was two really good teams that were playing extremely hard,” Warrior coach Brandon Rinta said. “Jacob and Danny were really dialed in offensively, and they were the difference in the game.”
Champoux (22 points) and Marshall (18 points) combined to go 18-for-20 from the field, and were the chief beneficiaries of an opportunistic offense that racked up 23 assists on 29 field goals.
“There is no offensive selfishness on this team. These guys pass up good shots for great ones, and that is just as big as the scoring we get,” Rinta said. “When P.J. (Bolte) and Rob (Ellis) have six and seven assists, I’m going to feel really good about that.”
The Warriors trailed 38-37 at halftime, but went into the locker room with some momentum after Champoux buried an isolation jumper on LCSC’s final offensive possession. That energy carried over to the second half, as LCSC began the period with an 8-2 run that gave it a 48-40 lead on a Champoux 3-pointer.
With his two 3-pointers in the game, Champoux now has the required number of made triples to be eligible for the NAIA leaderboard in 3-point percentage. At 69 percent (24-for-35) from beyond the arc, the Seattle native is now tops in the nation by a wide margin.
“He shoots that percentage, but he doesn’t settle for threes,” Rinta said. “He has a great mid-range game too.”
But just as quickly as the Warriors widened the gap, Westminster (13-2, 1-1 Frontier Conference) reeled the game back in behind a pair of 3-pointers by Jordan Pryor off the bench, the second of which tied the game at 53 with just under 12 minutes to play.
Under intense defensive pressure from the Griffins the Warriors not only held serve, but went on another 13-2 run over the next four minutes to take an 11-point lead at 68-57 when Marshall finished a perfect post entry pass from Ellis.
Westminster threatened to come back again, getting within one possession on a backdoor layup by Blake Skidmore with 4:15 to go.
Again, the Warriors showed the poise of a team that has gotten accustomed to winning close games.
Champoux hit a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game with 3:17 left, and then sank two free throws after a Westminster turnover to push it out to seven at 75-68.
The Griffins couldn’t get closer than four the rest of the way, even though the usually reliable Warriors missed four of their last five free throws.
“We normally ice those things off, but I’ll take it,” Rinta said. “When people think of Westminster, they usually think of a precision offensive machine, but you saw the best defensive team in the conference tonight. They really, really get after you, and they make things crazy. You have to have a tremendous amount of poise to handle that pressure.”
The Warriors played plenty of defense too.
Marshall, who Rinta credits with transforming himself into an elite post defender, had nine rebounds and five blocked shots to go along with his 18 points on Thursday.
Although Jake Orchard led all scorers with 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting, Westminster’s other top scorers were held in check by the LCSC defense.
“We made them work a little bit harder in the second half, but they still got some easy buckets,” Rinta said.
As much as the Warriors have earned a bit of celebration, a tough Montana Western team comes into the Activity Center on Saturday night for a 7:30 p.m. tip.
The Bulldogs moved to 11-4 overall and 1-1 in conference play with an 81-74 win over Montana Tech on Thursday night.
“It’s a good offensive team that has had to replace three really good guards, but they still score the basketball at a high level,” Rinta said.