The top-seeded Lady Bearcats, who were heavy favorites coming into the Class 4, District 1 Tournament, lived up to its No. 7 state ranking by defeating third-seeded Perryville 51-40 on Friday night at the Perry Park Center in Perryville.
Dexter (23-4) will take on District 2 champion Potosi (21-6) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Mineral Area College.
The victory not only is the school's first ever district championship in girls basketball, but it helped ease the pain of last year's oh-so-close two-point loss to Notre Dame in the district finals.
"I had two or three former girls here tonight and I gave them a big hug and broke down with them because they deserve this too because their the ones who got this ball rolling," said Dexter coach Gavin Miller. "I would've given anything for this to have happened last year but it didn't."
Dexter seemed to be in total control of the game but Perryville made a final push in the final quarter.
The Lady Pirates (16-10) held one-point leads on two occasions, including a 40-39 lead on a 3-pointer by Krista Miesner with 1:42 left in the game.
But Perryville would not score again.
On the ensuing possession, Dexter senior all-stater Rachel Blunt was able to hit a tough baseline jumper from 12 feet out to give the Bearcats a 41-40 lead with 1:16 left.
The clutch shot seemed to lift the spirits of Dexter, which spent the entire quarter trying to quash the Perryville momentum.
"Coach told me to take the ball and do something with it," said Blunt. "I made up my mind, I waited four years for that opportunity and I got it and took advantage of it. I was just looking for the cut to come across and nobody came so I decided i was going to penetrate. I was wide open."
On the following trip, Bearcat junior Natalie Hayes stole the ball and scored a layup to push Dexter's lead to 43-40 with 58 seconds left.
From that point on it was the Taylor Nelson show as she connected on eight straight free throws in the final 37 seconds to seal the victory.
"She has not missed a free throw since December 27th," said Miller. "It's up to around 30 in a row. She's about 92 percent on the year."
All four times she was fouled came after grabbing the defensive rebound. Nelson finished with a game-high 20 points.
"You can't put Nelson on the line with that much time on the clock," said Perryville coach Vicki Lohmann. "She's a great free throw shooter. I told them to foul anybody but her but she had the ball fall into her hands every time."
Lohmann indicated her team didn't react on defense after Miesner's 3-
pointer gave them the lead -- perhaps reveling too much on the shot.
"I knew Blunt or Nelson would get the ball when we were up by one," said Lohmann. "Our girls should have focused on that, but they didn't -- they kind of lapsed a little bit. Blunt got the ball and hit that nice little turnaround jumpshot."
Dexter led through the most of the game, holding a 10-7 edge after one quarter and a 20-13 lead at the half.
They led by as much as 11 in the third quarter before Perryville closed the gap to 28-25 heading into the fourth.
The Bearcats built a 36-30 lead in the fourth only to see Perryville scrap back into the game. Miesner's 3-pointer with 3:00 left in the game cut the lead to 36-35.
She then made two free throws after a steal to give Perryville its first lead with 2:40 to play.
Blunt responded with a conventional 3-point play 19 seconds later to retake the lead at 39-37.
On the ensuing trip, Perryville's Becky Bachmann missed two free throws but the Pirates came up with the rebound leading to Miesner's 3-pointer with 1:
42 left, setting up the final events.
"We just got it done -- I already told the girls there'll be people saying it wasn't pretty, it was ugly, but dad gummit you won," said Miller. "I'm so proud of these girls. I was congratulating them on being in the gym when it's a 100 degrees in the summer time and shooting free throws, and playing hard all the time. That's what it takes. You have to be committed to the gym, because if you're not things aren't going to happen. It's not one or two on the team committed, they're all committed. I'm just so proud."
Perryville reached the finals by upsetting second-seeded Fredericktown, which was state-ranked all season and were No. 8 in the latest poll.
"I told the girls the other night that this was not going to be an easy tournament," said Miller. "Whether it was an upset the night before or not it would be a very difficult tournament."
Perryville was led by Miesner's 16 points and Amber Hacker's 14 points.
The Pirates will lose just one senior to graduation.
"We would've liked to have had scoring contributions from a few more people but that's the way it's been all year," said Lohmann. "I've got a solid group of juniors coming back. We're not very big but talent-wise we're going to be better."
Blunt, who is headed to Southeast Missouri State University next season, finished with 19 points.
"We've talked about this for four years it's been a dream and every year we've come up short," said Blunt. "This year we thought we had the chance and it all came together."