POPLAR – Saturday’s girls basketball game between Poplar and Harlem has uncommon implications.
The two teams are usually sitting at the bottom of the District 2B standings, looking up at the likes of Malta and Wolf Point, who both played in the Class B state semifinals last year.
But Poplar and Harlem have combined for just three losses this season – Harlem to Shelby on Friday and to Box Elder, the No. 1-ranked team in Class C, and Poplar to Harlem on a late 3-pointer back on Jan. 13 – so Saturday’s matchup is likely a winner-take-all game for the regular-season conference championship.
“Usually we’re battling for the play-in game,” Poplar coach Les Bighorn said with a laugh. “This time it’s for the No. 1 seed to go into the tournament. It’s quite a turnaround for both programs.”
Harlem won just six games last season and has never finished better than third in the district. Third-year coach Laramie Schwenke has led an impressive rebuild for the Wildcats.
But Poplar has spent the past few years building to this. The Indians put together a 16-6 season last season, including a win to end Malta’s 54-game winning streak in December 2016. Poplar lost to those same M-Ettes in the district championship game and then lost out in two games at the always-competitive Northern B divisional tournament.
“We had a taste of it last year after we won the Malta game, but it was just a little bit,” Bighorn said. “We had a good offseason getting in a lot of tournaments. The girls just picked it up.”
And now – behind an eight-player rotation of Imani Bighorn, Alleen Russell, Chloe Belton, Gillian Medicine Cloud, Sasha Youngman, Riley MacDonald, Hailey Brunelle and Holly Colgan – they’re playing their best basketball of the season.
“Everybody’s stepped up these last few games. We’re looking like we did our first nine games,” said Les Bighorn, who is in the fifth year of his second stint as the girls head coach. “Now we’re hitting on all four cylinders again. They’re looking good, they’re playing, they’re having fun — that’s the main thing.”
Harlem suffered just its second loss of the season on Friday, dropping a 49-38 contest to Shelby. Bighorn expects his Indians will have their hands full on Saturday with a similar game to the first time the teams met on the Hi-Line.
Poplar led by 15 points in the second half, but Harlem mounted a frantic comeback, ultimately winning on an Autumn Eagleman 3-pointer with four seconds left.
“They like to (play) up-tempo just like us, press and push the ball,” Bighorn said. “If we can keep (Imani Bighorn) out of foul trouble – we lost her up there, that kind of made a difference – slow down their outlet pass and whatnot … my girls are not going to go down easy. I expect a pretty good game.”
No coach likes to say it aloud, but Bighorn admitted the earlier loss probably helped his team. Imani Bighorn has redefined her game, passing out of double- and triple-teams to open 3-point shooters; Russell, a multi-dimensional player who can play any position on the floor, has gotten fully healthy and regularly takes away the opposing team’s biggest offensive threat; and Belton is bringing her size and athleticism to the open court.
Medicine Cloud and Youngman, just a sophomore, manage the back-court duties, while MacDonald, Brunelle and Colgan come off the bench to fill various roles.
The team is jelling, having bounced back from that one loss to start a new winning streak that has now reached seven games. With each victory, the girls’ confidence continues to grow and the community support rises.
“It’s been really, really awesome with the community coming in and supporting these girls,” Bighorn said. “We’ve got people from all over, alumni and whatnot, that are rooting for them. The whole school, the little ones, are rallying around them. They know they’re role models, and they’re handling it well.”