That is, until the fourth quarter as the Braves turned up the intensity, crept back into the game, only to have a half-court prayer miss its mark in a 65-63 loss to No. 3 state-ranked Bell City.
The Braves, ranked sixth in Class 1, end their season at 24-5. It's Scott Central's most successful season since 1995 when they also reached the state sectional round.
Bell City (26-4) moves to the quarterfinal round where they will play Billings (25-4) at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the West Plains Civic Center.
The defending Class 1 state runner up Cubs controlled the game from the start and led by as much as 18 points in the fourth quarter, but a 3-point barrage and a full-court press allowed the Braves to get back into the game.
Scott Central got as close as one point twice in the fourth quarter, but couldn't overtake the Cubs.
Trailing 65-63, the Braves' Caleb Johnson grabbed a rebound off a missed free throw with three seconds left and dribbled quickly to midcourt where he flung a potential game-winning 3-pointer. The shot appeared to be on line, but it barely grazed the rim to the left and had no chance of going in.
"I knew it was going in," said Brandtner. "I know Caleb and I know he's capable of hitting that and he's a big-time player. I was scared for a second -- big-time players hit big-time shots and I thought it was going in. Luckily he didn't hit it."
As the ball was in the air, Scott Central coach Ronnie Cookson could only hope and pray for a miracle.
"I thought it was too far out," said Cookson. "It looked like it was going to be on. He's hit some from just about that far out so I wouldn't have been surprised if it had gone in."
Bell City built its lead by completely dominating the boards, especially on the offensive glass.
Bell City's 6-foot-10, 300-pound Will Bogan was a one-man force with his future coaches at Southeast Missouri State University in attendance. He scored 27 points with 21 rebounds, including 15 on the offensive end.
"They just dominated the boards," said Cookson. "We couldn't block Bogan off. We tried to, but he just walks over you. I'm not saying that's illegal or bad, but he does a good job around the goal. He moves well and he can stick it in the hole."
Bell City out-rebounded the Braves as a team 38-24. The Cubs also had 21 offensive rebounds.
"We've been doing a great job on the glass," said Brandtner. "Phillip Gross, with the way he elevates, he grabbed some huge rebounds when I thought they had position. If we can own the glass, I like our chances. (Bogan has) really turned it on. He's been dominant in big games for us. When we need him, he's been there for us."
Scott Central held its only leads of the game in the early going. The game had a strange start as Bell City was whistled for a technical foul for dunking during pregame warmups.
There was no jumpball and Scott Central was awarded two free throws and the ball. D.D. Gillespie missed both free throw attempts, but Drew Thomas scored on the ensuing possession. The Braves took a 4-2 lead after another Thomas basket, but that was their last lead of the night.
Bogan established his dominance in the paint, grabbing one offensive rebound after another and scoring the putbacks. The Cubs pulled out to an 18-10 lead when Nick Niemczyk buried a 3-pointer at the first quarter buzzer.
The Cubs built a double-digit lead to start the second quarter and they maintained at least a 10-point advantage the rest of the way until the fourth quarter.
By halftime, Bell City led 32-18, limiting the high-scoring Braves' offense in the process.
"We're a lot better than what we played that first half," said Cookson. "When a team that averaged 90 points a game and scores 18 points in the first half -- we just didn't play our game. We were trying to do stuff that we weren't supposed to be doing."
The Cubs were still in complete control of the game through the third quarter as they managed a 49-33 lead when Bogan tipped in a shot at the buzzer.
The Cubs' reached their biggest lead of the night when Bogan made two free throws to start the fourth.
The Braves started their run with a Thomas basket and three consecutive 3-
pointers by Toby Heeb. All of a sudden, Bell City's lead was cut to 51-44 with 5:17 left in the game.
"We live and die on our press and our quick game," said Cookson. "We couldn't get our quick game going in that first half, but finally our press started working a little bit and we stole it a few times. Toby hit those three 3s and that got us a lift. I'm proud of them. They kept trying to play. They wouldn't give up."
The Cubs got the lead back to 55-45, but on Scott Central's next possession, Bogan picked up his fourth foul on a Johnson basket with 4:01 left in the game.
Bogan had to go to the bench for a couple minutes and Scott Central took advantage. The Braves recorded back-to-back steals off the press leading to Gillespie layups both times to make it 55-51 with 3:30 left.
Less than a minute later, Gillespie scored on another steal and layup to cut the lead to 56-55.
"They were being real physical with us and we didn't handle it well," said Brandtner.
But perhaps the biggest play of the game came on the next possession for Bell City. Niemczyk was fouled and made the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw to lead 57-55 with 2:35 left.
He missed the second but Bogan, who had just entered the game, got his hand on the ball which squirted back to Niemczyk who promptly drained the 15-foot shot while being fouled on the play. He then hit the free throw to push Bell City's lead to 60-55 with 2:31 left.
The four-point possession may have been the difference.
"Any time we're in crunch time we want the ball going through Nick," said Brandtner. "He's such a solid basketball player. He uses both hands well, he's got good floor vision and he knocks his free throws down."
Scott Central still didn't go away. Gillespie scored on an old-fashioned 3-
point play to cut the lead to 62-60 with 58 seconds left.
Moments later, Scott Central stole the ball and called its final timeout. The Braves had trouble getting into an offense as Bell City forced a jumpball, giving the ball back to the Cubs on the alternating possession with 25 seconds left
Niemczyk was then fouled and he coolly drained both free throws to make it 64-60.
Again Scott Central had trouble getting into an offense, but Thomas took initiative and hit a difficult 3-pointer with eight seconds left to cut the lead to 64-63.
Helpless to stop the clock, Scott Central was forced to immediately foul with three seconds left.
Melvin Johnson made the first free throw, but missed the second setting up Johnson's half-court heave.
Niemczyk had 18 points and three steals for Bell City. Gross and Marty Dames each had eight points. Gross also had four assists.
"They're a strong team," said Cookson. "They're a very good team. They've got some balance. Niemczyk is as tough as any guard in the state of Missouri. You show me one that's tougher. He's smart, he's heady, he knows what to do and he knows when to do it."
Scott Central was led by Thomas' 20 points and eight rebounds. Gillespie scored 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter. He also had four rebounds and six assists.
Johnson added 14 points and eight rebounds. Heeb had 12 points off the bench, all on 3-pointers.
Bell City had 17 turnovers, most coming in the fourth quarter. Scott Central only had 10 turnovers.
Cookson came out of retirement to coach the Braves this season as an emergency replacement for the MSHSAA-induced suspension of coach David Heeb.
"The kids hustled and they worked hard," said Cookson. "I'm as tickled to death with how hard they played for me all year. I wish them all the luck in the world from here on out."
Brandtner admitted that he thought the game was in the bag in the third quarter.
"You just have to take your hats off to the level they played tonight and how hard they scrapped," said Brandtner. "Early in the third quarter I was convinced they were done. They were winded and they were tired, but then they hit those big shots and got re-energized. They gave us all we wanted. We knew they wouldn't lay down. Coach Cookson is one of the better coaches in the history of Missouri and we know what a good team they are."