BELGRADE — Leave no doubt.
That's been Poplar's motto all season, and the Indians did just that with a rally for the ages Wednesday in the first round of the Class B Boys State Basketball Tournament at the Belgrade Events Center.
Down by 17 points entering the fourth quarter, Poplar finally found the net from 3-point range and then turned on the jets defensively for a 68-67 overtime victory over a stunned Three Forks outfit that had put on a clinic for three quarters.
The Indians will play defending state champion Bigfork at 6:30 p.m. Friday in a semifinal. Missoula Loyola and No. 1 Colstrip square off in the other semi at 8.
"I'm sure a few of us were nervous at beginning of fourth quarter, but we knew what we needed to do to bring team back," said senior guard Kenny Smoker, who scored a game-high 22 points and led the second-half charge. "We all believe that we could do it despite being down 17 points. We all just had to lock in, play defense, score on the other end and try to come back."
The Indians, the top seed from the rugged Northern B and making their first state appearance since 1985, were a blur in the fourth quarter. Smoker had two quick 3-pointers and a baseline jumper to pull within 54-50 with still 5:10 to play, capping a 15-2 run that took less than three minutes. The Indians eventually even led 63-61 before a Colter Miller rebound basket tied it with 9.9 seconds to go in regulation.
In overtime, a 3-pointer from the corner by Wilfred Lambert with 2:12 to play gave Poplar a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Smoker made one of two free throws with 7.8 seconds to give the Indians a 68-65 lead and open one last chance for a tie, but Three Forks drove for a layup instead and time expired.
"We know we always have a chance because we’re in the best shape of any team in Montana, I don’t care who it is," said Poplar coach Frank Gourneau III, between congratulations from happy Indians boosters outside the locker room. They showed it today.
His message at 17 down?
"Keep fighting," he said while tipping a proverbial cap to Three Forks for putting his team in a deep hole. "They’re tired, we’re not. Push it, fill the corners, stick to the game plan. Don’t venture off of it. We've been doing that all year.
"I said don’t hang your heads because you’re going to see their tongues hanging. It was good."
Darryl Joe had 17 points for Poplar. Another 15 came from Wilfred Lambert, who hit three quick baskets to fuel the fourth-quarter surge.
Miller had 19 points, Dustin Dalke 15 and Micaiah Hauswer 14 for Three Forks, which used its superior size for three quarters to offset Poplar's pace.
Colstrip 62, Shelby 52
For the second straight game, it took a while for Kobee BigBack and the unbeaten Colstrip Colts to get rolling.
Once they did, the Colts played like the top-ranked team in the state, outlasting defending state runnerup Shelby.
BigBack scored a game-high 29 points and Colstrip pulled away after trailing by a point early in the fourth quarter. It was reminiscent of the Colts' Southern B championship game against Three Forks, which they rallied late to win 43-40.
"We just need to wake up," said BigBack, who is following in his father Kenny's sneakers to Rocky Mountain College next year. "Once we started warming up and getting relaxed in this environment then we started hitting some shots. We just decided to outhustle them and outwork them."
JT Baer and Kellen BigHead had 12 points apiece for Colstrip. Tanner Parsons and Logan Leck had 16 apiece for Shelby, the third seed out of the Northern B.
The two teams went back and forth for most of the first three quarters, with neither team leading by more than five points. A bank shot by Rhett Reynolds put Shelby up 42-41 with 6:30 to play, but Bo Vocu hit a 3-pointer from the corner and BigBack answered with a bucket to put the Colts up four.
Another BigBack basket made it 50-43 with 4:08 to go and the Coyotes would get no closer.
"We played pretty smart ... and our defense just kind of hung in there," Colstrip coach Joe Egan said. "We just kind of grinded away on them."
Bigfork 61, Big Timber 45
The Viking seniors have been playing together for a dozen years or more, so they weren't about to fret when Big Timber rallied from a double-digit deficit to tie it at 43-all one minute into the fourth quarter.
Seniors Anders Epperly, Colton Reichenback and Logan Gilliard put the team on its shoulders and sealed the deal with an 18-2 run to finish the quarterfinal and keep Bigfork's hopes for back-to-back titles alive.
"The guys in there, we've had 16 years together since Rotary basketball and second grade," said Epperly, who scored a game-high 24 points and five assists, cementing is spot as No. 2 all-time in career assists in Montana. "We stuck together and made big plays when it counted. We grinded it out. That's what it's about."
The Vikings kept the Herders at arm's length for most of three quarters. Big Timber finally reduced the deficit to single digits with less than three minutes to go in the third quarter and tied it with 7:00 remaining on a 3-pointer by Kell Schwers, eliciting the loudest cheer of the evening from the Herders bleacher section.
Then Bigfork took over.
An Epperly drive gave the Vikings a two-point lead and Colton Reichenbach followed with a 3-pointer and then a deuce. Just like that, it was 50-43 with 2:29 to go and it was a matter of hitting free throws from there.
The Vikings did just that and now they're two wins from going back-to-back on the heels of going undefeated in 2017-18.
"We had a week off, so we got our legs under us which was nice," Epperly said. "We're back in the semifinals and that's a great feeling."
"This is a whole new team," Bigfork coach Sam Tudor said. "It's great to have all that tradition on our side. We lost a lot of height and gained a lot of speed. This group's been playing well together for a long time. It's one game at a time and right now it's Poplar, and I'll tell you what -- that's going to be a great game."
Colton Reichenbach scored 17 points. Ethan Bullock scored 16 and Kell Schwers 14 for Big Timber.
Missoula Loyola 64, Rocky Boy 42
While the other three quarterfinal winners had to go to the mat to survive, Loyola so overwhelmed Rocky Boy that coach Eddie Stack was able to clear his bench with a 30-point lead early in the fourth quarter. On top of a nine-day break between their challenge game rout of St. Ignatius, the Rams should have plenty in their legs as they square off against top-ranked and unbeaten Colstrip on Friday night.
"It's a really good thing to get out there and win by that much because we got to rest our legs a little bit for the next round, which is super helpful," said wing Cooper Waters, a Montana Tech football signee whose 19 points and 13 rebounds led the way. "I think we're all feeling pretty good."
It took a quarter-plus for Loyola to begin breaking away and they led 33-23 at halftime. In the third quarter, the Rams outscored the Stars 20-4 and by midway through it wasn't a matter of if but when.
"Hopefully if we can get into Day 3 I think it's a big deal anytime you can get some rest," Loyola coach Eddie Stack said. "I think we're probably the only team that played tonight that maybe saved a little bit of legs and not have to play close until the end. In a three-day tournament, that's a huge advantage for us. Those things add up."
The Rams were relentless against the outsized Stars, who were clobbered 62-34 in rebounds. Twenty-nine came on the offensive end, compensating for 33.2 percent shooting.
Charles Burns added 13 points and Montana Griz football signee Ryan Tirrell added 10 for Loyola. Wyatt Caplette had 18 points and Frankie Bacon 10 for Rocky Boy.
"That's the type of ball we've been playing the last few weeks," Stack said. "Attacking the rim, getting extra shot, being big inside both offensively and defensively. Although we played well I think we still left a few things out there on the court. Hopefully we can clean those things up against a tough Colstrip team tomorrow because we're going to need every bucket we can get."
The Rams, with eight seniors, have big dreams. They also remember missing out on the state tournament a year ago by losing a challenge game to Anaconda.
What's the mindset?
"Win, win, win, win," Stack said with a laugh. "These kids missed out on a state tournament last year and they've just kind of had that mindset that they weren't going to be denied getting to this weekend and are here to do something, not just to be here."