(JAKE KREULEN ~ Dexter Daily Statesman)
WEST PLAINS, Mo. -- It was a struggle much of the way, just as Bell City boys basketball coach Brian Brandtner anticipated.
But there was ultimately no denying the Cubs their fourth consecutive Class 1 Final Four berth.
Bell City, last year's state runner-up, rode a stifling defense and a huge fourth quarter to a 55-31 quarterfinal win over Billings at the West Plains Civic Center on Saturday.
The Cubs will carry a 27-4 record and a 23-game winning streak into Friday's 4:30 p.m. semifinal in Columbia against undefeated LaPlata.
"It's great that we're going back to Columbia and now we'll see what we can do up there," Brandtner said.
While Saturday's final score appears to indicate that the Cubs had a breather, that was certainly not the case -- at least not until the fourth quarter.
Billings (25-5), while holding only two brief leads in the early going, hung right with Bell City until the final period, when the Cubs buried the Wildcats with a 23-4 advantage.
Through three quarters, Bell City never led by more than eight points and the Cubs were ahead just 32-27 entering the last 8 minutes.
"I had heard a lot of good things about Billings. I knew they would be a tough team," Brandtner said. "They were big and strong."
While Bell City had the biggest player on the court in 6-foot-10 Southeast Missouri State commit Will Bogan, four of Billings' players were taller than anybody else the Cubs used.
Four of Billings' starters stood between 6-2 and 6-4, and most of them packed sturdy builds.
"They were strong and physical," Bell City senior guard Austin Segers said.
But the Cubs ultimately wore down Billings with their suffocating man-to-man defense that Brandtner said has been their calling card most of the season.
"Our game plan was to wear them out at the end and I think that happened," Brandtner said. "Our defense has carried us. It's been great.
"Games like this, when your shooters aren't knocking down shots, you have to have something to carry you. I thought we did a great job guarding them."
Said Bogan, a senior center who led all scorers with 18 points: "It was our defense, everybody helping out. We just kept pressuring them. I think we wore them out. I know they were tired."
Brandtner, Bogan and Segers all pointed to the relentless defensive work of junior forward Marty Dames as being one of Bell City's keys.
Dames is among the Cubs' least heralded starters, because he usually doesn't score all that much. But Brandtner believes Dames is as valuable a player as Bell City has.
"He does all the things you don't see in the stats. He is such a tough defender," Brandtner said. "Every game we play, he guards the other team's best player, no matter what position he plays."
Saturday, the 6-1 Dames was given the assignment of harassing 6-4 senior forward Corey Hastings. Hastings scored 12 points but had to work for everything he got.
"Hastings is a stud, but Marty did a great job on him," Brandtner said.
Added Segers: "We really focus on defense and Marty Dames gets us going."
Junior forward Phillip Gross added 10 points for the Cubs, while Segers had a strong game off the bench with nine points, including seven in the second half.
Junior guard Nick Niemczyk also had nine points.
Bell City led 10-8 after one quarter and 22-18 at halftime as Billings controlled the tempo and the Cubs never could get their running game going.
The same held true in the third quarter, which ended with the Cubs on top 32-27 as the game had all the makings of a down-to-the-wire affair.
But the Cubs finally broke the Wildcats with a 10-0 run in the first 3 minutes of the final period to go up 42-27. Bell City cruised from there.
"We got it going in the fourth quarter," Segers said.
And now the Cubs will go all the way to Columbia as they seek a state title after falling one win short last year.
"If we keep playing like this, we can go all the way," Bogan said.
Bell City 55, Billings 31
BILLINGS (31) -- Chaz Harter 8, Shane Wilson 3, Aaron Tyler 2, Corey Hastings 12, Brian McCool 6. FG 8, FT 14-21, F 19 (3-pointers: Harter 1. Fouled out: McCool)
BELL CITY (55) -- Nick Niemczyk 9, Melvin Johnson 3, Phillip Gross 10, Austin Segers 9, Marty Dames 4, Austin Bush 2, Will Bogan 18. FG 20, FT 13-25, F 19 (3-pointers: Johnson 1, Gross 1. Fouled out: Gross)