MISSOULA - The Bigfork Vikings are perfect once again.
Five years after an undefeated run to the school’s first boys basketball state championship, the Vikings beat Shelby 60-56 late Saturday night at Dahlberg Arena to finish another unbeaten season and bring home the Class B state championship for a second time.
Bigfork (24-0) led from nearly the opening tip, scoring on the game’s first possession and maintaining that lead for the next 32 minutes, despite a late push from the feisty Coyotes. The Vikings’ three stars once again led the way, with senior Beau Santistevan scoring 18 points, Logan Gilliard adding 12 points and Anders Epperly totaling 15, including the game-clinching free throw with four seconds to go.
When Epperly’s last foul shot crawled over the front rim and through, he raised two arms in triumph, and as the final horn sounded the junior sprinted from the far baseline and into a wild celebration in front of the Bigfork bench and a decidedly pro-Vikings crowd.
“I just wanted to find someone to hug,” Epperly said following the win. “It feels great. We’re such a close group and we all love each other.”
The Vikings shot exceptionally well from the foul line, finishing 25 for 33 in the game. Santistevan made all 11 of his attempts at the charity stripe and added nine rebounds in his final prep game. Gilliard pulled down eight boards and Epperly dished out five assists. Bigfork also shot well from long distance, making 7 of 14 3-pointers.
Bigfork’s fans traveled in droves down U.S. 93 to fill more than one section in the arena on the University of Montana’s campus. The crowd was dominated by blue and red, and friends and family hung around late into Saturday night to celebrate on the court.
“It was the biggest crowd we ever played in front of,” Santistevan said. “It was crazy. Just a big thanks to the community for coming down.”
Epperly set the tone from the game’s first possession, when the junior point guard spun around defenders in the lane and scored to give the Vikings a lead they would never relinquish. Then, on the first quarter’s final play, he rushed from the opposite foul line, Euro-stepped across the lane and made a circus lefty scoop while being fouled. Epperly sank the free throw to stretch the Bigfork lead to 18-10 after one quarter.
While Shelby (21-5) never caught the Vikings, the Coyotes stayed close throughout, getting within one point late in the fourth quarter. But every time Shelby got close, the Vikings had an answer. Epperly drained two free throws with 1:30 to go to push Bigfork’s lead to 54-51, and Santistevan added two more free throws on the next possession to stretch the advantage.
Bigfork went 26-0 and won the state championship in 2014 with a 71-62 win over Columbus in the title game. The Vikings fell short in the 2016 finals, losing 67-59 to Choteau.
The title was the first for head coach Sam Tudor, who took over the program immediately following the last Bigfork state championship.
The Vikings will return Epperly and Gilliard next season, although they lose a class of seniors that includes Santistevan and reserves Logan Taylor and Chase Chappuis.
Check out next week’s Flathead Beacon for more on Bigfork’s state championship.