MISSOULA — Anders Epperly led Bigfork from start to finish.
The 5-foot-10 point guard jump-started the Vikings with a crafty spinning layup on its first possession of the ! B state championship game. About 31 game minutes later, Epperly stepped to the line and knocked down a free throw — his seventh make of the evening from the charity stripe — to seal the Vikings’ 60-56 win over Shelby and their second state title in the past five years at Dahlberg Arena.
“I knew the second one was going in, and so did he,” forward Beau Santistevan, who paced Bigfork with 18 points, said of Epperly’s final free throw attempt. “Everyone knew it was going in.”
When it did, the Vikings were finally able to breathe easy after enduring a furious second-half rally from the Coyotes.
Shelby slowly but surely chipped away at Bigfork’s nine-point halftime lead throughout the second half, eventually trimming its deficit to one with a minute and 47 seconds remaining in the game.
Fittingly, Bigfork clinched its victory — and with it the second basketball championship in school history — at the foul line.
Over the 1:15 that followed Logan Watson’s 3 that cut the Vikings’ advantage to one, Epperly and Santistevan knocked down 5 of 6 free-throw attempts to provide Bigfork with a 5-0 run and some much-needed breathing room.
“We knew they were going to make a run, and we just wanted to stay together as a team and not break up,” Epperly said. “We did that.”
After another Shelby 3 — this one off the hands of Aaron White — made it a one-possession game once again at 59-56, Epperly stepped to the line with a chance to clinch the title.
The first foul shot hit the rim and bounced out, prompting a Bigfork timeout.
After a while to think on it, the Bigfork junior coolly toed the line and hit the second.
He threw his hands in the air triumphantly as the hundreds of Bigfork faithful, who made the two-hour journey south, shook the Adams Center with their roar.
“I’m confident in my shots,” Epperly said. “The first one felt great coming out of my hand. I just took my time with the second one, and it was a great feeling when it went in.”
The roots of the Vikings’ success at the foul line, where they connected on 25 of 33 (75.8 percent) tries, are found in practice.
“Each player has to make 10 in a row, and if they don’t make 10 in a row, we run,” said Santistevan, who was a perfect 11 of 11 from the charity stripe.
Bigfork’s efficiency from the line is much of why they left Dahlberg Arena champions late Saturday night.
Fifteen of their 19 points in the fourth quarter came from free throws.
“They’re pretty seasoned,” Bigfork head coach Sam Tudor said. “They’re not going to get frazzled.”
The Vikings led by nine at the half despite 14 points from Shelby’s TJ Reynolds before the break. The Montana State-Northern commit finished with a game-high 22.
“That kid is so tough,” Tudor said.
Tudor assigned forward Logan Gilliard to Reynolds after intermission, and the 6-foot-4 junior was able to slow Shelby’s star despite finding himself in foul trouble for much of the second half.
Gilliard also tallied 12 points and eight rebounds.
Epperly, the only Viking to play the entire game, dropped a game-high five dimes and chipped in 15 points for Bigfork.
“If they’re open, I’ll get it to them,” he said.
The junior point guard played an integral role, both as a scorer and distributor, in helping Bigfork redeem itself with an undefeated season after it was ousted in a challenge game and missed the state tournament a year ago.
“Last year, we got our hearts broken in divisionals,” Epperly said. “This year, we came back hungry.”
Bigfork 18 12 11 19— 60
Shelby 10 11 14 21 — 56
BIGFORK — Anders Epperly 15, Clayton Reichenbach 5, Colton Reichenbach 5, Logan Gilliard 12, Beau Santistevan 18, Logan Taylor 2, Chase Chappius 3.
SHELBY — TJ Reynolds 22, Zach Torgerson 3, Aaron White 15, Logan Watson 9, Macager McAllister 4, Kade Leck 3.
Rocky Boy 14 17 31 18 — 80
Lodge Grass 9 22 16 23 — 70
ROCKY BOY — Kordell Small 12, Ben Iron Eyes 22, Frankie Bacon 7, Olin Arkinson 3, Kendal Windy Boy 20, Kade Galbavy 1, Wyatt Caplette 13, David Russette 2.
LODGE GRASS — Mylon Blacksmith 20, Elijah Rogers 9, Ethan Dust 28, Josh Stewart 3, Hank PrettyOnTop 6, Colton Collins 4.
Joliet 16 8 24 19 — 67
Lodge Grass 24 16 23 20 — 83
JOLIET — Brett Robinson 18, Taylor Rowlison 25, Ry Olson 19, Reed Welch 5.
LODGE GRASS — Robert PrettyOnTop 15, Mylon Blacksmith 16, Elijah Rogers 20, Ethan Dust 13, Josh Stewart 6, Hank PrettyOnTop 3, Colton Collins 8, Stone Elk Shoulder 2.
Colstrip 13 17 15 11 — 56
Rock Boy 13 22 15 20 — 70
COLSTRIP — C Wheatley 4, Rivers Anderson 3, Kellen Bighead 3, Payton Means 14,Joel McCrea 15, Kobee Bigback 2, Isaiah Williams 15.
ROCKY BOY — Kordell Small 24, Ben Iron Eyes 15, Frankie Bacon 4, Wyatt Caplette 4, Kendall Windy Boy 23.