BELGRADE — Outside the Bigfork locker room at the Special Events Center, a Vikings backer's words to Logan Gilliard said it all.
"Yeah, Logan, one more baby!" the guy yelled.
Thanks in great part to the lithe 6-foot-4 senior, Bigfork is indeed one more win from winning its second consecutive Class B state championship. Gilliard scored a game-high 27 points and the Vikings fended off one attack after another by Poplar for a 75-60 victory Thursday one night after the Indians rallied from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to bounce Three Forks.
Poplar, making its first state tournament appearance since 1985, was down 17 points late again and trimmed the deficit to 10 twice. But Bigfork's eight seniors kept their composure and advanced to a showdown at 8 p.m. Friday against Missoula Loyola, a 56-51 winner over top-ranked and previously unbeaten Colstrip (24-1).
According to the Montana High School Association record book, it'll be the first time two Western B teams meet for the crown.
"We were up 19 and they came back -- we were scared," Gilliard said. "We're up 40 we're still going to be scared of those guys. But we finished the game with our free throws. We basically stuck to our game plan."
That's what Missoula Loyola did as well against Colstrip, and now the two traditional Western B powers will square off for a fourth time for the division's most prized trophy. The two teams split during the regular season and Bigfork won at divisionals.
"We love it, we love it," Loyola coach Eddie Stack said of facing the Vikings. "We have such a tremendous rivalry for them. It's huge for our Western B to have two teams in there. That never happens. So we're really proud of our side of the state right now and the basketball we're playing. Bigfork's a heck of a team and we'll battle it out one more time."
For Bigfork, the game plan was to go inside to Gilliard and Colton Reichenbach, who at 6-2 still had an edge on smallish Poplar. Reichenbach had 15 points and point guard Anders Epperly had 17 along with five assists.
"It was huge," Vikings coach Sam Tudor said after a lengthy round of hugs from three brothers and his parents, who came from such distant outposts as Minneapolis and Yuma, Arizona, for what he described as an impromptu family reunion. "The boys don't get how much this means to me. We're kind of basketball blood. This was a big one for us. It's really cool."
It was big in another way, too. Tudor knew what Poplar had done to Three Forks on Wednesday night in erasing the double-digit deficit.
"Poplar is so good," he said. "They look like a team that looks like they're going to lose and they look like they're going to lose -- and then they win. And we knew that going in. That tells you they're composed and it was important going in that we kept our composure. And that's exactly what I saw."
But Bigfork was better. Despite the constant pressure, the Vikings hit six of their nine 3-point attempts and committed only nine turnovers. They raced to a nine-point lead after one quarter and kept Poplar at arm's length thereafter.
"It's tough to beat a team when they shoot 67 percent from the 3-point line," Poplar coach Frank Gourneau III said. "We got in a hole we couldn't quite get out of. It just didn't go our way. But they're a good team. They execute well and take care of the ball. They kept their composure. Hats off to them -- they're state champs for a reason."
The Indians now play a loser-out game against Rocky Boy at 9 a.m. Friday. Colstrip plays Big Timber in the other loser-out game in the morning.
The message to his team with the quick turnaround?
"There's still a trophy out there to go get," Gourneau said. "Just don't hang your heads. Nobody believed you'd be here. There's three trophies they give away. Two weeks ago I said, 'End the season with a win'. That's still our goal now."
Bigfork is guaranteed hardware. The Vikings, with eight seniors, have their eye on the biggest prize.
"This is such a special group of seniors and so much has to go right to be here," Tudor said. "It means the world to me."
Missoula Loyola 56, Colstrip 51
The chant began with 12.9 seconds to play: "We want Bigfork! We want Bigfork!"
That's precisely who the Rams will get Friday night after pulling away from Colstrip by scoring the final eight points of the third quarter.
"Kids just played tough, stuck with game plan, hung in there," Stack said. "It was a lot of fun out there. It kind of stinks that there has to be a loser because Colstrip obviously is a very good team. What a game to be in a and what a night for the Rams."
The score was knotted at 33-all in the third when Loyola began its decisive surge. They scored the final eight points and then senior forward Jack Lincoln, who had a game-high 23 points, scored to begin the fourth quarter for a 43-33 lead.
Colstrip would get as close as four points twice in the final three minutes and then create one last moment of anxiety when Kellen BigHead hit a 30-footer with three seconds to play to make it 54-51. But the Rams got the ball in bounds and two free throws later it was all over.
"That was kind of the last big run of the game," Stack said of Loyola's third-quarter surge. "It kind of helped us stave off a couple of those long bombs at the end."
Colstrip coach Joe Egan also thought that run was the difference.
"That's where it got away from us, right there," Egan said. "It was those last few minutes just defensively. Our defense just didn't get the job done for us. They were able to get to the basket and shoot high-percentage shots and we just couldn't get over the hump."
After going unbeaten and having the biggest dreams, will it be tough for the Colts be able to muster the resolve to bounce back against Big Timber and shoot for third place?
"I don't think so," Egan said. 'In the locker room the guys were good. They realized they've got to go do the right thing. Their spirits were good. I was surprised. They picked their heads up and I think they're ready to go."
Jacob Hollenback added 18 points for Loyola. Kellen BigHead had 18 and JT Baer 15 for Colstrip. Colts star Kobee BigBack was in foul trouble and shadowed by Montana Griz football recruit Ryan Tirrell for much of the game, and was held to four points.
Big Timber 51, Three Forks 40
Kell Schwers had 17 points and Jacob Roberts added 13 points and 10 rebounds as Big Timber kept its hopes for hardware alive with a loser-out victory over Three Forks.
The other winner Thursday morning was Rocky Boy, which toppled Northern B foe Shelby 62-50.
Big Timber broke open a close game with an 18-12 third quarter.
Colter Miller led Three Forks with 17 points and 14 rebounds in the Wolves' final game. Bryce Olson added 10 points.
Big Timber plays the Colstrip at 10:30 a.m. Friday.
Rocky Boy 62, Shelby 50
Frankie Bacon scored 19 points and had six rebounds, and Jordon Tyner added 12 points and six rebounds to lift the Stars past the Coyotes.
Rocky Boy outscored Shelby in every quarter, including 23-18 in the fourth. Wyatt Caplette added 11 points for the Stars.
Tanner Parsons and Logan Leck scored 11 points apiece and Rhett Reynolds added 10 for Shelby. Leck also had nine rebounds.
Rocky Boy faces the Poplar at 9 a.m. Friday.
This story will be updated.