BOISE — Bear Lake Strong.
It's a message that's plastered in big blue letters across the facade of the small 2A high school in Montpelier, but on Friday, it manifested in a gym draped with yellow and black in west Boise.
In the upper deck of Bishop Kelly's gym, the Bear Lake band chanted the mantra as their girls basketball team closed out a state semifinal victory.
A few rows behind the scorer's table, fans wearing blue mohawks joined in, watching the best underdog story at this year's state tournament write another chapter.
And on the court, the Bears were living it, walking through Grangeville for a 45-32 victory that advanced them to the state title game.
Bear Lake will play Melba at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa. A win would give the Bears the second state title in program history, and first since 1999.
"I went in the locker room (after the game) and said nobody believed in us, but we believed in us," Bear Lake coach Brenda Messerly said. "You don't get to this game by going and playing a couple good games here. It's 6 a.m. practices, it's bus rides, it's getting benched when you don't think you deserve it, it's having injuries and continuing to fight. Nobody on that roster ever gave up."
At this point, Bear Lake's tale is well-told. The Bears were the No. 4 seed — out of five teams — in the 2A District 5 tournament. They were playing for their lives as far back as two-and-a-half weeks ago, when they beat Malad in the district tournament play-in game.
That's right — one of the 2A state finalists had to win a play-in game to get into their district tournament. Since then, they've beaten district No. 1 seed Aberdeen twice to make it to the state tournament and knocked off Ririe — judged to be the No. 2 team in the state in the final media poll — in the first round. That was the first, first-round win for the Bears since 2008.
On Friday, they added Grangeville — No. 3 in that final media poll, the one that Bear Lake didn't even sniff — to the list.
It hasn't been an easy year for Bear Lake, or the Bears' leading scorer, Hailey Humpherys. Humpherys lost her father last year. The entire school community suffered through tragedy in December when Traeden McPherson, who wrestled for Bear Lake, died in a car accident.
Through the pain, the motto became more than words painted on a wall.
Bear Lake Strong.
Before the Bears tipped off in the district tournament, Messerly asked Chad Hymas to talk to the team. Hymas became a quadriplegic when a bale of hay fell on his neck in 2002. Since then, he's become an accomplished wheelchair athlete and nationally-recognized motivational speaker with nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter — and also happens to be friends with the family of Bears forward Lydia Johnson.
"We really spent a lot of time understanding that if we can take the emotion and and the craziness out of the game and focus on doing our jobs, we can do anything we can set our minds to," Messerly said. "(Hymas) is pretty amazing. ... He just told us his story, and how he takes every day, and it's inspiring. I think it really lit the fire for those girls."
That message has helped key the Bears through their unlikely late-season run. Teams like Ririe and Grangeville expected to be in their spots in the state tournament. Bear Lake, meanwhile, has had to fight against adversity the whole season. When every game is an elimination game — for nearly three straight weeks — "Bear Lake Strong" isn't just a nice motto. It becomes a necessity.
The only surprise was that it was so easy on Friday. After coming back against Ririe on Thursday, the Bears led wire-to-wire against Grangeville — 13-6 after a hot-shooting first quarter and 24-14 at halftime.
When the Bulldogs tried to up the pressure in the second half, Humpherys skated through their full-court press, dribbling circles — literally, on a few occasions — around the Grangeville defenders, drawing nine fouls and scoring nine of her game-high 16 points at the free-throw line. Kelsea Skinner made two crucial 3-pointers as the Bears made 5 of their 14 shots from behind the arc, well ahead of Grangeville's 2 of 19 mark. Kalisha Parker played every second of the game and picked up a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds, helping Bear Lake survive on the boards in a game in which it gave up 20 offensive rebounds and only grabbed four.
"That was a complete team effort," Messerly said. "We have Hailey, and she gets a lot of the press because she's absolutely amazing, but we pulled some tough rebounds out of there. ... To know that we can go to our bench and they can play big moments, it's invaluable."
When it was over — no stress of watching the other team have multiple chances to go ahead at the end, as the Bears endured Thursday against Ririe — the players and the fans spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Bishop Kelly's gym. The sun had just set, the light was still in the sky and the guys with the blue mohawks were still buzzing — Cassidy Parker, Bryson Crane, Shane Johnson and Peyton Johnson, all related to players on the team.
They've worn the eye-catching hairdos for both games so far in the state tournament, and they'll be back with them Friday for the title game.
"At this point, it's got to be lucky, right?"
Either that — or Bear Lake strength.
"I just want to sat thank you to our community too," Messerly said. "When we didn't have our fans and we couldn't have all the people that we wanted to, we just felt the words Bear Lake Strong meant something more than ever before. ... That's kind of been our mantra, our community's been through a lot."
BEAR LAKE 45, GRANGEVILLE 32
Grangeville 6 8 11 7 — 32
Bear Lake 13 11 11 10 — 45
Grangeville — Vanderwall 11, Brown 7, Lutz 5, Barger 4, Smith 3, Green 2.
Bear Lake — Humpherys 16, Parker 11, Skinner 6, Kelsey 4, Johnson 3, Crane 3, Sharp 2.