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Vikings overcome semifinal loss, injuries to earn 3rd at State B Tourney

by JEREMY WEBER
For the Eagle | March 15, 2023 12:00 PM

With the possibility of a state title off the table and starter Nick Walker out of the lineup due to an ankle injury, the Vikings could have easily thrown in the towel after a semifinal loss to Malta at the State B Basketball Tournament in Great Falls Friday.

Instead, the team showed the same grit and determination it has all season, bouncing back with wins over Columbus and Red Lodge to bring home a third-place trophy.

“Our goal at the beginning of the season was to win a state championship, but the stars just didn’t align this time,” head coach John Hollow said. “We had a lot of injuries during the season and had several guys that wound up having to play out of position. I wish we could have gotten that state title, but I don’t know if I have ever been prouder of a group and the way they persevered through everything that was thrown at them.”

The Vikes opened the tournament Thursday against the team they would see again in the consolation final, coming from behind to down the Red Lodge Rams, 55-48.

The Vikes fought their way to an 11-10 lead late in the first quarter, but back-to-back threes from the Rams left Bigfork trailing 16-11 after one quarter of action.

Bigfork was abe to battle its way back to take a 26-25 lead at the half and a 40-38 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

In a game that saw nine ties and 11 lead changes, the Vikings were able to pull away in the closing moments of the fourth to earn a 7-point victory.

The Vikes used a balanced scoring attack to earn the win as Nick Walker led the way with 14 points and seven rebounds while Bryce Gilliard also scored in double figures with 10 points and added six rebounds.

Wyatt Johnson turned in a strong all-around performance with nine points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals while Jack Jensen had seven points, three rebounds and a pair of assists.

Isak Epperly had six points and eight rebounds, Landon Byerman put in six points and Eli Thorness scored three.

The Vikings found themselves in an early hole against the Malta Mustangs in the semifinals Friday, trailing by 10 after one quarter and by as many as 17 in the second quarter before battling their way back in the second half.

Despite spraining his ankle in the second quarter, Walker stayed in the game and cut the Malta lead to 33-26 on a fast-break layup with 2:28 to play in the third quarter.

Bigfork trailed 38-30 heading into the fourth before an Epperly three with 7:27 to play cut the Malta advantage to 38-35.

It was as close as the Vikings would come, however, as the Mustangs held on for the win.

“These guys just found ways to win games all season and we almost did it again,” Hollow said about the loss. “In a state semifinal game, you just can’t have a quarter like we did in the first and hope to win.”

Epperly finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Vikings in the loss while Walker had nine points and five boards.

Jensen scored six, Thorness and Byerman both had four points and Gilliard had two.

The Vikings bounced back in a 9 a.m. loser-out game Saturday morning as they took on the Columbus Cougars and their twin towers of Hayden Steffenson (6’9”) and Michael Curl (6’5”).

With Epperly defending the taller Steffenson, the Vikings’ guard combination of Johnson, Jensen and Byerman disrupted the Cougars offense by combining for nine steals en route to a 53-42 victory.

Columbus jumped out to a 16-10 lead after on quarter and led by four late in the half before a Thorness three and a steal and layup by Byerman in the closing moments put Bigfork up 23-22 at the break.

The game continued to be close in the third quarter, with Bigfork taking a 32-29 lead after 24 minutes, but the Vikings pulled away in the fourth to win by 11 and earn a spot in the third-place game.

Epperly led what was once again a balanced Bigfork scoring attack with 12 points and added four rebounds and four steals while Thorness scored 11 and Byerman also had 11 points and added five boards.

Johnson finished with nine points and four steals while Jensen had five points and three steals and Gilliard added five points and four rebounds.

An exhausted Vikings squad took a first-quarter lead against Red Lodge in the third-place game and never gave it up as Bigfork earned a 45-36 win.

Epperly led the way with 14 points and seven rebounds while Thorness had nine points and Johnson scored eight.

Byerman finished with seven points and five rebounds, Jensen scored four and Gilliard had three points and five rebounds.

With the win, the Vikings finished the season 23-5.

“The third-place game was about the ugliest offensive contest I have ever been a part of. Our kids were running on fumes, but still giving it everything they had. We found a way,” Hollow said. “It took a lot of courage for these kids to fight back and come through with a trophy. We get to be one of only eight teams in Montana that gets to finish their season with a win and that’s pretty cool.”