(Diane L. Wilson)
PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- While the difference has not been great in either meeting this season, the Scott County Central boys basketball team is supplanting Bell City as the top Class 1 team in the area.
The Braves grabbed their second victory over Bell City this season on Saturday, outlasting the Cubs 85-82 in the third annual Heartland Hoopfest at the Perry Park Center.
Scott County edged Bell City 76-71 in the semifinals of the Oran Invitational during the opening week of the season. Bell City will likely get two more cracks at the Braves, with potential matchups looming in the quarterfinals of the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament and the sectional round of the Class 1 playoffs.
This was just the third overall meeting between the two teams since Scott County coach David Heeb left Bell City for his alma mater. Heeb surrendered coaching duties to former Braves coach Ronnie Cookson prior to the start of the season as he prepares for a suspension ordered by the Missouri State High School Activities Association for undue influence, a charge originated by Bell City.
"Coach Cookson has them playing good basketball," said Bell City coach Brian Brandtner, who led his team to a Class 1 runner-up finish last year. "I'm not trying to take anything away from them, but offensively, we're terrible right now. We're not getting the basketball where we're supposed to."
The Braves survived a lethargic second quarter and came back from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Cubs. Bell City took the lead in the opening minute of the second quarter and did not surrender it until a Richard Brownlee basket gave the Braves a 79-77 lead with 1:19 remaining.
Scott County sophomore forward Drew Thomas and junior guard D.D. Gillespie were the offensive catalysts for the Braves. Thomas tied the game at 77-77 with a 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes remaining, and Gillespie had 18 second-half points.
"They held their composure real well," Cookson said. "Drew came through and hit a big shot, and D.D. hit a big shot, and it's about time D.D. hit a big shot. He's a heck of a shooter, but the shots just haven't been falling for him."
As is the case with most close games, free throw shooting was key down the stretch. Scott County hit 16 of 20 free throws in the second half to stay in the game. Gillespie was 7-for-8 in the second half, while Caleb Johnson hit six of his eight attempts in the second half.
Scott County's 21-for-28 performance overall (75 percent) was an improvement from the previous meeting between the two teams. The Braves managed to hit just 19 of 39 free throws on Nov. 30.
On the other side, Bell City hit just four of 13 second-half free throws and was 9-for-22 overall. Bell City missed four straight free throws late in the final period.
"If I was a team playing us, I'd just foul us," Brandtner said. "It's been an Achilles heel for us all year. The last few games we've won, we hit them early and often. It makes a big difference when you hit your free throws."
Foul trouble again played a big part in Bell City's undoing. But unlike the first meeting, when 6-foot-10 Will Bogan was forced to sit extended minutes, Bell City's senior center was not the culprit. Junior forward Phillip Gross picked up his fourth foul less than 2 minutes into the third quarter, and fellow starter Marty Dames got his fourth 2 minutes later.
"Foul trouble kind of hurt us," Brandtner said. "We didn't have the lineup we wanted in there much at all, especially the second half."
Bell City trailed by as much as 11 points in the first quarter, but was able to regroup thanks to the play of Bogan. Bogan played a controlled game inside, gaining superior position and finishing when he got his hands on the ball.
He finished with 26 points and had nearly 20 rebounds.
"He's been playing a lot better," Brandtner said. "He's getting better position. He needs to be our first touch almost every time down."
Nick Niemczyk added 24 points for the Cubs, and Melvin Johnson had 14.
Scott County managed just seven points in a poor second quarter to fall behind 38-32 at the half. Gillespie took over early in the third with his dribble penetration, and the Braves were able to get to the line often as the referees called the game much tighter in the second half.
Caleb Johnson put the Braves on top for good 81-79 with a shot over Bogan inside with 38 seconds remaining. Gillespie hit one of two free throws for a 82-79 lead, and Caleb Johnson got the rebound on the missed free throw and pushed the lead to 84-79.
Niemczyk hit a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds remaining to cut the lead to 84-82. Thomas hit one of two free throws on the other side, and Melvin Johnson nearly put the game into overtime with a deep 3-pointer which rimmed out of the basket.
Scott County Central 85, Bell City 82
SCOTT COUNTY (85) -- Drew Thomas 26, D.D. Gillespie 24, Caleb Johnson 21, Richard Brownlee 12, Toby Heeb 2. FG 29, FT 21-28, F 20 (3-pointers: Thomas 3, Gillespie 1. Fouled out: none)
BELL CITY (82) -- Will Bogan 26, Nick Niemczyk 24, Phillip Gross 8, Austin Segers 8, Marty Dames 2, Melvin Johnson 14. FG 33, FT 9-22, F 21 (3-pointers: Johnson 3, Niemczyk 2, Segers 1. Fouled out: Dames)