BELGRADE — Kenny Smoker had no doubt.
Despite facing a 17-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, Poplar’s senior point guard knew his team would be playing in the semifinal round of the Class B boys basketball state tournament at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
The Indians trailed Three Forks 52-35 after three quarters of their first-round game Wednesday, but the fourth quarter belonged to Poplar. The Indians outscored the Wolves 26-9 in those eight minutes on their way a 68-67 overtime win.
“Yep, the whole game,” Smoker said when asked when he knew the Indians had won the game. “We have a motto that says, ‘Leave no doubt.’ We play hard until that final buzzer, and we did.”
“I’m sure a few were nervous at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but I know in a couple of our guys’ heads we knew we had to do something to bring our team back,” Smoker added.
The Indians started the fourth quarter in a flurry, quickly dissolving Three Forks’ lead. After missing 12 of their first 13 3-point attempts, Poplar made five of its next eight while amping up its defensive pressure to frustrate the Wolves.
“We started hitting shots. I think we had three, four 3s in a row. That’s how we get rolling. It’s different, because of the rims. Kids have never been in this type of atmosphere before. Once they seen that first one go, it’s just like that basket went from that to that,” said Poplar coach Frank Gourneau, demonstrating a wide cylinder with his arms. “We always just push it, push the pace and put the pressure on them. We know no matter how much we’re down we always have a chance, because we’re in the best shape in the state of Montana, any team, I don’t care who it is. And they believe, and we showed it (Wednesday).”
Poplar needed the run thanks to an impressive display from Three Forks, the No. 2 seed out of the Southern B. The Wolves had a 16-9 lead after the first quarter and maintained a 21-20 lead at halftime. They seemingly blew the game open in the third, outscoring Poplar 31-15 in the stanza.
Micaiah Hauser and Colter Miller helped spark the third-quarter run, but neither had any answers for Poplar in the fourth. The Indians spurted to a 15-2 run to get within four early in the fourth quarter, electrifying an energetic Poplar fan base, including Gourneau.
“When I’m jacked, they’re getting jacked,” Gourneau said. “Even in practice, I’m jacked and they’re rolling with it. I told them, ‘Bump that music (in the locker room after the game). Let’s go.’ A great group of kids. It’s fun, man. Unbelievable.”
Smoker finished with a game-high 22 points, scoring 18 of them in the second half. He added seven rebounds and four assists in the win, while Darryl Joe had a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds. Wilfred Lambert (15 points) and Wynn Main (11) also scored in double figures.
Miller paced Three Forks with 19 points and nine rebounds, Dustin Dalke added 15 points and eight rebounds, and Hauser had 14 points, five rebounds and six assists. The Wolves will play Big Timber in a loser-out game at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Poplar, which is making its first state tournament appearance since 1985, according to Gourneau, will now meet Bigfork in Thursday’s semifinal round at 6:30 p.m. The Indians won the District 2B and Northern B divisional championships in what’s becoming a historic season.
The successful run — with Wednesday’s thrilling win just the latest — has helped invigorate the community on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
“It’s amazing. We just recently had a young gentleman take his life in a suicide and a couple other unfortunate events,” Gourneau said. “You see our crowd, I think we got the best crowd in the state. It’s just great. It’s uplifting, and it’s something positive instead of all that negative that always gets reported about us. It’s something for everybody to enjoy and be happy. Even if it’s for three days, it’s something positive in our life.”
“Not too many teams come from this far coming out of Poplar, boys or girls,” echoed Smoker. “It’s great to be a part of history. We’ve got to be role models for the youth. There’s a lot going on in the community, a lot of negative stuff that we’d like to change. We’re hoping we can do that through basketball.”
Stats: Poplar 68, Three Forks 67
Bigfork 61, Big Timber 45
Anders Epperly has been a rock for the Bigfork boys basketball program.
The 5-foot-10 senior guard set Montana’s high school assists record earlier this year, according to the Montana High School Association record books. On Wednesday, he played a crucial role in helping the defending champion Vikings past Big Timber, 61-45, in a hard-fought game at the Class B state tournament at the Belgrade Events Center.
Epperly, donning a 1970s-era hair style, calmly stepped to the free throw line, sinking pretty free throw after pretty free throw to put the game out of reach.
“If you don’t look at him, he’s a pretty neat kid,” Bigfork coach Sam Tudor joked, ridiculing Epperly’s curly locks.
“He’s what I call a luxury at the end of a game,” said Tudor, serious. “I think leadership’s a big one. He’s got all those basketball skills, but his leadership is pretty amazing on and off the court.”
Epperly finished with 24 points and five assists to help Bigfork withstand Big Timber’s comeback attempt. The Herders, who suffered their first loss of the season at the Southern B divisional tournament to enter this weekend’s bracket as a No. 3 seed, trailed by as many as 14 points. They rallied back, tying the game at 43-all on a Kell Schwers 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
It was all Bigfork from there, though, as the Vikings closed the game on an 18-2 run. Epperly broke the tie with a driving layup, and Colton Reichenbach scored five quick points to push the lead back to seven. Reichenbach finished with 17 points. As Bigfork — mostly Epperly, who made 14 of 16 from the charity stripe — hit its free throws, Big Timber never threatened the rest of the way.
“The guys in there, we’ve had six seniors that have been playing together since Rotary basketball, second grade, third grade, playing together. We knew they would make a run in the second half, because they’re a great team. They started hitting their shots, and we just had to stick together,” Epperly said. “We had to rebound better, because they’re a big team. They got us on size, so we just had to stick together and made plays when it counted — grinded it out, that’s what it was about.”
Bigfork gradually built a double-digit lead in the early going, taking a 30-20 lead into the halftime break. Big Timber cut the deficit to just five going into the fourth quarter and scored the first five points of the fourth to tie the game.
Ethan Bullock finished with 16 points and Schwers added 14 but was just 2 of 12 from 3-point range. As a team, Big Timber was just 17 of 57 from the floor (29.8 percent), including a 3-of-18 mark on 3-point attempts.
“Big Timber’s a good team. For them to come in as the (South’s No. 3 seed) is tough. They’re a big, physical team,” Tudor said. “A team like that’s not going to go lightly, so I was proud of our boys to grind it out. … It was a good team effort. Defense, in particular, was pretty impressive.”
The Herders will fall into loser-out action, where they will face Three Forks at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Bigfork, meanwhile, is back in the semifinal round and will play Poplar at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. In their title-defense, the Vikings have lost two games this season, but they won the Western B divisional tournament to claim a No. 1 seed for this week’s state tournament.
“This is a whole new team (from last year),” Tudor said. “It’s great to have that tradition on our team. We’ve talked about it: We lost a lot of height, but we gained a lot of speed. This group of seniors has been playing ball together a long time. We don’t really compare much. It’s one game at a time, and right now it’s got to be Poplar. And I tell you what, that’s going to be a good game.”