COLUMBIA -- When you have a proven winning formula, you stick with it.
The Bell City Cubs have a formula they've been using all season, and it definitely works in big games.
Drawing on its potent three-person scoring attack, game-long defensive pressure and penchant for strong second halves, Bell City continued to dispose of Class 1A schools on Friday.
Bell City's latest victim became the Stewartsville Cardinals, who the Cubs defeated 65-55 in the Class 1A semifinals.
Bell City improved to 28-5 as it advanced to Saturday's 2 p.m. state championship game against Santa Fe (24-5). The Cubs, who finished third in 1981, made their first state championship game appearance in school history. Look for results in Monday's paper.
"It's kind of neat to be the first team out of Bell City to play for first," senior Jason Rampley said. "At the beginning of the season we started off 1-2 and everybody was like, 'Well maybe they're not as good as they're supposed to be.' We knew if we stuck together and kept working hard, that we could make it."
Santa Fe posted a 71-69 victory over the Community Trojans.
"I'm ready to play," said Bell City sophomore point guard Dominitrix Johnson of the state championship game. "I was ready today. This is my first time here. I've heard a lot about it."
Johnson helped steady the Cubs early, scoring the team's first six points of the game and finished with 17 points. It was his lowest point total since scoring 19 in the Cubs' district championship win over Oran. C.J. Hadley topped 20 points for the third straight game with 21 points and all-stater Eric Henry added 15.
"That team is extremely talented," Stewartsville coach Brian Whitmer said. "They've got so many different weapons." Big-game pressure appeared to dilute the Cubs' formula early. Bell City struggled in the first half, shooting 25 percent from the field, including just 2 of 13 from Henry, but went into halftime leading 29-24. Bell City trailed 10-4 when it went on a 12-0 run for a 16-10 advantage. Stewartsville responded with an 8-0 spurt, capped by a pair of free throws by Chris Motsinger with 3:14 left in the half. It would be the Cardinals' final lead of the game.
Hadley tied the game at 18-18 on Bell City's next possession off a feed from Johnson to spark a 7-0 Cubs' run. A pair of Henry free throws with 2:45 left put Bell City ahead for good 20-18.
Bell City coach David Heeb said he thought his team was playing hard the first half, and maybe trying a little too hard.
"I told them at halftime that we played about as poorly as we can play and we were still winning," Heeb said. "I knew they were going to be tired in the second half. Our quarter is the third quarter."
"We just couldn't hit nothing the first half," Henry said. "Coach told us to keep shooting it." The shots began to fall in the third quarter as they have throughout their playoff run. The Cubs hit 50 percent from the field in the period.
"We always crank it up the second half," Hadley said.
Still leading by five points halfway through the period, the Cubs began one of their patented third-quarter runs, sparked by a conventional Johnson three-point play for a 40-32 lead. Johnson then assisted Hadley and Henry on baskets for a 44-32 lead with 1:49 left in the period.
Stewartsville primary weapon was Motsinger, a 6-foot-5 center who scored a game-high 28 points.
"We wanted to try to make him score 50," Heeb said. "We knew he was good and we didn't have anybody that could guard him. We just told them to shut the other kids down."
The strategy worked. Travis Hunt, 11 points, was the only other Cardinal to finish with more than six points. Bell City took a 49-38 lead into the fourth quarter, where it led b y as many as 14 points, 56-42. Stewartsville cut the lead to 56-48 with four minutes left, but never got closer.