Heart of a Champion

Gritty Bigfork fought back to win a second straight state basketball championship while Columbia Falls rallied from defeat to take home a trophy for the sixth year in a row

By Andy Viano
Bigfork celebrates its second straight Class B state championship after a 47-43 win against Missoula Loyola on March 8, 2019 in Belgrade. Photo courtesy of BMGphoto.com

The weight of expectations can be heavy, particularly for boys who have not even reached adulthood. And throughout the season there were times when the Bigfork High School basketball team looked burdened, less like the marauding monsters who went undefeated a season ago and much more human. They stumbled to a loss just after the calendar flipped to 2019 and then lost again, in a game at home, in front of their own fans, and on senior night no less. Taking every team’s best shot was taking a toll.

But when the biggest moment came around, when the time came for a champion to be crowned, and when an off night could have ended their season in the blink of an eye, it turned out there was no weight heavy enough to sink these Vikings.

Bigfork won its second consecutive Class B state basketball title on March 8 in Belgrade, beating Missoula Loyola 47-43 in a game that tested the poise and resolve of the champions from the very beginning as Loyola raced to a double-digit first-quarter lead.

“We were in trouble,” Bigfork Coach Sam Tudor said of his team’s start.

Ironically enough, it was a lack of composure that turned the Vikings’ fortunes. Logan Gilliard, one of seven seniors, picked up a technical foul with Loyola in front 14-4, and the uncharacteristic outburst prompted Tudor to take a timeout he was trying to avoid.

“It was frustrating and Gilliard got that technical foul out of frustration,” Tudor said. “We preach composure all the time and he felt terrible about it, but technical fouls are part of the game and I thought that was what helped us balance the scales a little bit.”

The Vikings (22-2) would not bounce back right away, falling behind 21-10 early in the second quarter before a modest push brought the score to 25-19 at halftime. Clayton Reichenbach, another senior, had 12 of Bigfork’s 19 points in the first half.

The second half didn’t start much better, and Bigfork was down 28-19 when a composed and determined Gilliard snagged an offensive rebound, finished the put-back and was fouled. His three-point play ignited a 17-2 run the rest of the third quarter, a burst that included seven Gilliard points.

“You look at who really took over and scored at the end of the game, and got the game for us, it was Logan,” Tudor said. “He was just a bruiser down there.”

Loyola would make another run in the fourth quarter, trimming the deficit to one early in the period, but again Bigfork stood resilient. Anders Epperly, the Vikings’ four-year starter at point guard and the state’s all-time career assist leader, was in the midst of an uncharacteristically ragged offensive night when he recovered a deflected pass just before falling out of bounds and started a fast break. The ball came back to Epperly on the left wing and the senior coolly swished a 3-pointer — his only field goal of the game — to make it 41-35 Bigfork.

Nothing came easy in the closing minutes for either team, but Bigfork did enough to prevail, icing it with 24 seconds left on a pair of Colton Reichenbach free throws. The final horn set off another celebration for the Vikings in front of another large contingent of fans who had made the trip east.

The championship game itself made a bit of history as what was believed to be the first title-game matchup between teams from the Western B division. It was also the fourth meeting of the season between the two basketball rivals. Bigfork and Loyola played twice in the regular season, with the Rams handing Bigfork that senior night loss on Jan. 26 before the Vikings ran off 10 straight wins, including victories over Loyola in the divisional and state title games. The familiarity between the two teams led to a ragged, physical contest played in front of heated and raucous crowd.

“On those timeouts at the end of the game, it was the kids literally trying to read my lips,” Tudor said. “That’s how loud it was down there in Belgrade.”

Bigfork will graduate virtually its entire rotation, and the school’s sports programs as a whole will look a lot different when the next school year rolls around. Someone else will be quarterbacking the football and basketball teams in Epperly’s place as he leaves school with 805 career assists. Gilliard will be on the gridiron as a linebacker at Montana State University. Randy Stultz, the basketball team’s defensive stopper and an all-state running back for the Vikings football team, will be playing baseball at MSU-Billings. And the Reichenbach twins, Colton and Clayton, the defending state champion doubles pair on the tennis court, will be at the University of Montana after senior seasons in which they both scored in double-figures for the basketball team. It is a group that Tudor, having just completed his fifth year as head coach, holds dear.

“I was given the opportunity and the experience to have each one of those kids for a few brief minutes (after the championship game) and tell them how much they meant to me,” he said, his voice catching. “I think that was one of the most powerful things as a coach … That’s the kind of thing that keeps you going sometimes.”

Ryley Kehr looks to shoot during a Columbia Falls win at Whitefish on Jan. 10, 2019. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Columbia Falls Girls Win Sixth Straight Trophy

After three straight days of early wake-up calls and 9 a.m. tip-offs at the Class A state girls basketball tournament in Great Falls, the Columbia Falls Wildkats were tired.

Worst of all, it had been just five hours since the last of those 9 a.m. games had ended, and the Laurel Locomotives were chugging back into a game they had trailed for most of the last three quarters. All of a sudden what had been an 11-point lead was gone, and with less than 30 seconds left in the third-place game on March 9, Columbia Falls was trailing 41-39.

“Early in the fourth quarter, we just hit a wall,” Head Coach Cary Finberg said. “We were just gassed.”

On the next play, on what could have been the final possession of her high school career, Ryley Kehr backed her way into the post, spun off her right shoulder and scooped a right-handed layup off the glass and in with 15 seconds on the clock. The good news was the Wildkats were still alive. The bad news was the whole exhausted mess of them would have to play four more minutes of basketball.

Somehow, after four ragged minutes of overtime in which two tired teams combined to shoot a dreadful 1-for-10 from the free-throw line in the final minute-plus, the Wildkats emerged victorious, huffing and puffing their way to a 46-44 win and a third-place finish, making it an incredible six years in a row for Columbia Falls in the state’s top three.

“We just found a way to survive,” Finberg said. “For us to be as physically and mentally exhausted (and still win), that just shows you what type of group this is.”

The group of Wildkats this year was an unusual mix of young and old, with Finberg’s eight-player rotation featuring three seniors, one junior, three sophomores and a freshman, but they managed to gel quickly and put together one of the best seasons in Columbia Falls history. While they didn’t win a state championship like the 2017 team did, this group won a school-record 25 games and lost just twice, later avenging both of those losses. The senior class — Kehr, Trista Cowan and Savannah Ellis — finished second in the state in 2016, first in 2017 and third each of the last two years.

“We’ve got a lot of great kids, obviously, kids that put the team first, work extremely hard, and obviously they’re buying into what we’re trying to get done here,” Finberg said.

The Wildkats lost to Laurel in the first game of the tournament on Thursday when the Locomotives had a near-perfect first quarter, opening a 16-0 lead in about the first three minutes to deliver a knockout blow Columbia Falls would not recover from in a 58-29 defeat. The Wildkats came back to beat Libby 48-33 on Friday, then held off Billings Central 43-38 early Saturday before paying back the Locomotives later that day.

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