The Daily Inter Lake
BELGRADE — Bigfork is one victory away from posting back-to-back Class B state boys basketball championships.
The Vikings took care of business on Thursday night by checking an explosive Poplar team in a 75-60 semifinal victory at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
That effort advances Bigfork (21-2) to tonight’s championship game at 8 versus Missoula Loyola.
“They were an amazing team, very well composed,” Bigfork coach Sam Tudor said of Poplar.
“A difficult team to prepare for. We stayed together and hung in there.”
The Vikings held off a two late surges by Poplar in the fourth quarter. And each time, the Indians were kept 10 points back.
Wilfred Lambert, who finished with 16 points, hit a 3 as Poplar slipped to within 10 at 63-53.
However a Logan Gilliard field goal with less than 3:23 remaining put Bigfork back in front by 12, 65-53.
A three by Poplar’s Kenny Smoker made it a 10-point game again, 70-60, but Bigfork’s Anders Epperly followed with a free throw and Gilliard was clutch at the free-throw line in the closing seconds, making four straight to complete the scoring for the 15-point victory.
There was reason for Bigfork to worry as Poplar erased a 17-point deficit during Wednesday’s opening round to knock off Three Forks in overtime, 68-67. However, there was no big rally this time.
Bigfork, on the other hand, toppled Big Timber in its first-round contest, 61-45.
Bigfork had a strong opening half in the semifinals, taking a 39-24 lead to the locker room. Luke Schmit ended the first-half scoring with a 3 from the corner.
“That gave us some momentum for the second half,” Tudor said.
Schmit finished with seven points.
Both teams scored 36 points in the final half.
Gilliard, who had 14 points in the first half, led Bigfork’s balanced attack with 27 points, which matches his season high.
He also led the team in rebounds with 12 and finished with seven steals.
Epperly totaled 17 points and Colton Reichenbach netted 15.
Bigfork shot 53 percent from the field (26 of 49) and went 6 of 9 from three-point range.
Poplar shot 43 percent (21 of 49), but hit just 9 of 22 attempts from behind the arc.
Poplar had a slight edge in rebounding, 33-30, but had 13 turnovers to just nine for Bigfork.
The Vikings were 7 of 12 at the free-throw line to 9 of 19 shooting for Poplar.
Bigfork defeated Shelby 60-56 in last year’s title contest in Missoula to finish the season with a 24-0 record. The Vikings lost in the state final in 2016 to Choteau, 67-59.
“We’re so excited to be here again,” Tudor said of tonight’s finale.
Loyola topped Colstrip 56-51 in Thursday’s late semifinal matchup.
This will be the fourth meeting between Bigfork and Loyola this season.
Bigfork 20 19 17 19 — 75
Poplar 11 13 17 19 — 60
POPLAR — Wilfred Lambert 16, Darryl Joe 14, Chris Colgan 11, Kenny Smoker 10, Wynn Main 9.
BIGFORK — Logan Gilliard 27, Anders Epperly 17, Colton Reichenbach 15, Clayton Reichenbach 7, Luke Schmit 7, Levi Taylor 2.
9 a.m. — Poplar vs. Rocky Boy
10:30 a.m. — Big Timber vs. Colstrip
6:30 p.m. — 9 and 10:30 a.m. winners
8 p.m. — Bigfork vs. Missoula Loyola