BELGRADE — The champs are back.
Bigfork, which defeated Shelby 60-56 in last year’s Class B boys basketball state championship game, will play for another title on Friday after dispatching Poplar 75-60 in Thursday’s semifinal round at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
“My freshman year I told the senior guys I played with I’d be back, because I knew the guys we have are special,” said Vikings senior Anders Epperly. “We have such a great bond. We grinded. Those guys are a tough team, they just kept on coming wave after wave. We stood in there and made our free throws, and we’re back. It’s awesome.”
For Epperly and the other seniors, this will be the third championship appearance during their high school careers. Bigfork also made the title game in 2016, losing a 67-59 matchup to Choteau.
The Vikings have run the gauntlet against the Northern B, which has won 14 of the past 17 Class B state titles. Bigfork has two of the other three and had to deal with another strong Northern B team on Thursday.
The Indians rallied from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to top Three Forks in Wednesday’s first round and dug a similar hole against the Vikings on Thursday. Bigfork had a clear size advantage, and the bigger Vikings went to work in the paint to build a 39-24 halftime lead. Logan Gilliard, 6-foot-4, had 14 points in the first half and Colton Reichenbach, 6-2, had 10.
“Logan’s up there with the top posts in the state, he can do everything,” Epperly said. “I know he’s going to play (football at Montana State), but I feel like he can play basketball, too, if he wanted to. We got to feed him as much as possible, get him going early, and he played awesome (Thursday).”
“We knew we out-sized them a little bit, so we had to come in, kind of slow it down,” Gilliard said. “We knew they were streaky. You saw it, we were up 19, they came back. We were scared. If we were up 40, we were still going to be scared of those guys. We had to finish the game, hit our free throws. We basically had to stay physical, that was our game plan coming in.”
True to Gilliard’s word, Poplar attempted a frantic rally in the second half after again struggling in the first half. Wilfred Lambert started to heat up in the second half, drilling four 3-pointers to keep the Indians within striking distance. They threatened to cut the deficit to single digits multiple times, but Bigfork did just enough at the free throw line to seal the win.
Gilliard finished with a game-high 27 points, and Epperly added 17. Reichenbach contributed 15 for the Vikings.
Poplar, which will play Rocky Boy in a loser-out game at 9 a.m. Friday, got 16 points from Lambert, 14 from Darryl Joe, 11 from Chris Colgan and 10 from Kenny Smoker.
“They were down 15, I was talking to (Lambert) on their team, I said, ‘You guys are going to start hitting, I know you are.’ He said, ‘Yep,’ and there they came,” Epperly said. “We stuck together. They’re a great shooting team. It was scary, but we hung in there and made our free throws.”
Bigfork will now play for the state title for the third time in four seasons, tipping off against Missoula Loyola or Colstrip at 8 p.m. Friday. It’ll be the first time since 2014 a team from the North hasn’t played for the title and just the second time since 1999.
“Every team out of the North seems to be at the top of the class in Class B,” Epperly said, “and hopefully we can say that the Western B is getting to the top of the class. Us and Loyola, I feel like we’re starting to push our way up there a little bit, so it feels good.”
Missoula Loyola 56, Colstrip 51
Missoula Loyola aims to close quarters strong.
On Thursday, the Rams closed the third quarter on an 8-0 spurt that proved critical in a 56-51 win over Colstrip in the semifinal round of the Class B boys basketball state tournament at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
Loyola had built a slim lead early in the third quarter, but Colstrip battled back to tie the game at 33-all. The Rams took control from there, surging to a 41-33 lead going into the fourth quarter.
“That was probably the last big run of the game,” said Loyola coach Eddie Stack. “They kept hitting a few shots there at the end and making some plays to stay in it, but I think that was probably, if I can remember right, the last kind of big run of the game and helped us stave off a couple of those long bombs at the end.”
That run ultimately was a difference between a berth in Friday’s championship game against Bigfork and a loser-out date with Big Timber. Seniors Jack Lincoln and Jacob Hollenback were critical components during that run — and, really, all game — for the Rams, as they stemmed the tide and took control going into the fourth quarter.
The teams played to a virtual stalemate outside of that Loyola run. The Rams led 17-11 after the first quarter, but it was just 24-23 at halftime. Colstrip had an 18-15 edge in the fourth quarter.
“It was difficult, they play pressure defense, they’re up in your face the whole game,” Hollenback said. “Not only on the offensive end, but playing defense the whole time, they’re constantly moving. They’re a very well-coached team, and they have very great players, too.”
Kellen Bighead was arguably the greatest of Colstrip’s players on Thursday. He had a team-high 18 points and kept the previously unbeaten Colts within striking distance with his long-range shooting. He made three 3-pointers, including one from about 30 feet to bring Colstrip within 54-51 in the closing seconds.
Lincoln sank two free throws to secure the win and punch Loyola’s ticket to the state championship game.
“For this group, it means everything,” Stack said. “That’s what they set their goals on starting after last season and actually well before that — those kids play a tremendous amount of basketball. It’s something we don’t have at our school, we’ve never had a state basketball championship, and these kids want to be the first. Any time you do something first, it’s really special.”
Lincoln scored a game-high 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, and Hollenback chipped in 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Loyola had a decided rebounding advantage, corralling 30 boards to Colstrip’s 21, but 15 of Loyola’s rebounds came on the offensive glass. Of Lincoln’s seven rebounds, five were offensive, and Ryan Tirrell added three offensive boards and nine overall.
“We weren’t shooting the ball the greatest the whole game, but we started getting second-chance points there,” Hollenback said. “Even if we weren’t getting the second-chance point and getting the layup immediately, we were kicking it out and … just playing team basketball.”
Loyola now gets a rematch with Bigfork on Friday with championship tip scheduled for 8 p.m. The Rams and Vikings have met three times this season — they split in the regular season and Bigfork won the Western B divisional championship.
“I told the kids it’s our turn to win,” Stack said. “We’ve been trading off, so hopefully that holds true.”
Colstrip, which also got 15 points from J.T. Baer and 11 from Bo Vocu, will play Big Timber in a loser-out game at 10:30 a.m. Friday.
Stats: Missoula Loyola 56, Colstrip 51
Big Timber and Rocky Boy won loser-out games Thursday at the Class B boys basketball state tournament to extend their seasons.
The Herders got 17 points from Kell Schwers and 13 from Jacob Roberts in a 51-40 win over Three Forks. The Wolves were led by Colter Miller’s 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Rocky Boy, meanwhile, topped Shelby 62-50. Frankie Bacon scored 19 points, Jordon Tyner had 12 and Wyatt Caplette added 11 for the Stars. Logan Leck (11 points), Tanner Parsons (11) and Rhett Reynolds (10) finished in double figures for the Coyotes.
Stats: Big Timber 51, Three Forks 40