WEST PLAINS -- A 15-0 run for the Bell City boys basketball team spanning the late first quarter and early second had the Cubs up 26-12 and looking like they would once again cruise their way into the state final four.
But Bell City, which had won quarterfinal games the past two years by a combined 42 points, encountered an inspired Verona squad the rest of the way and a questionably officiated second half but still managed a 67-57 win Saturday in a Class 1 quarterfinal at the West Plains Civic Center.
The Cubs will play in their third straight state final four and fourth in five years. Bell City (27-4) will play Tuscumbia in a semifinal on Thursday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.
"I want to give Verona credit, they came out and played extremely well," Bell City coach Brian Brandtner said. "I think that's a sign of what a great team's about. We weren't exactly on our game and they played their best game, and we still came away with a 10-point win."
It was evident as early as the second quarter the deeper Cubs squad was wearing down Verona, which barely went six or seven deep. The Wildcats (23
-7) were able to strategically use their timeouts and found the wind to keep up with the Cubs.
A 16-3 run following Bell City's 15-0 run cut the lead to 29-28 late in the second quarter. Bell City scored the last five points of the quarter to go ahead 34-28, but Verona had proved it would not be an easy out.
"At that point we kind of laid off," Bell City senior Kerry Wayne Lasters said. "We didn't have that killer instinct."
Bell City continued to lead in the third quarter and got its lead back to nine at 44-35 midway through the period. That's when some weird things started happening with the officiating.
After making what seemed to be an innocent comment following a foul call, Brandtner was given a technical foul. Nick Stellwagen sank four straight free throws to cut the lead to 44-39.
Over the rest of the game, the same official made several calls that sent Brandtner and the Bell City fans into a rage.
"It took us out of our game a bit," Lasters said of the officiating.
Verona freshman Charlie Withnell gave the Wildcats their first lead since the opening quarter with a basket 1:20 into the fourth at 49-48. Withnell had all six of his points in the first 3 minutes of the fourth.
"I thought they would give up, but they never gave up the whole way," Lasters said.
Added sophomore Phillip Gross: "It was intense. It was also kind of scary because we haven't played a game this close all year except early in the season. But we came together, played better defense and pulled it out."
Bell City did not panic after falling behind and went inside to exploit its size advantage. Will Bogan, Bell City's 6-foot-10 junior, scored the next four points for the Cubs to put Bell City back in front 52-49. Bell City did not trail again.
"We made a point to get the ball into Will and the guys could cut off him," Brandtner said. "When we did that we had a lot of success."
Nick Niemczyk's only 3-pointer of the game gave Bell City some breathing room at 58-52 with 2:55 left. Niemczyk scored 10 of Bell City's final 14 points.
He finished with a game-high 21 points. Bogan had 20 points and 18 rebounds. Phillip Gross and Lasters added nine points apiece.
"Our bench is very deep," Gross said. "We can go to the bench and we still have players that can score."
Zach Smith led the Wildcats with 21 points, Stellwagen had 17 and Andrew Smith had 10.
Bell City, ranked No. 3 in Class 1, will go for its third state title in five years. While the Cubs players are state veterans, Brandtner will lead his first team to the final four.
"This is an unbelievable feeling just knowing you're down to the final four," Brandtner said. "I've never been there. A lot of the kids have and that's a benefit to the team. I haven't been there, but I know what it takes to win it."