Round VI: Bell City vs. Scott County

Thursday, March 5, 2009
Braves senior Drew Thomas steps back from Sikeston defenders to shoot during a game earlier this season.

Bell City looks to win its eighth straight district title today, but one major obstacle stands in its way -- powerful Scott County Central.

The Braves are the No. 2 ranked team in Class 1 and they are taking aim at their sixth straight district title.

The two rival schools have become accustomed to playing each other in the Class 1 high school basketball playoffs, but not this early.

During each of the past five years both teams have won their respective district titles before meeting each other for a sectional-round contest. But the districts were restructured this past offseason, and it left Scott County and Bell City, the two most successful Class 1 teams in Southeast Missouri this decade, in the same district.

They will meet tonight at 6 p.m. at Bell City High School in the Class 1 District 3 title game.

Bell City's Jeff Long tries to get around Leopold's Wade Wiseman during the second half of their Class 1 District 3 semifinal Tuesday night at Bell City.

"I'm really looking forward to it [after] last year when we lost to them in the sectionals," Bell City's J.P. Arnold said. "So I am out for that revenge."

Last year's sectional game marked a significant turning point in the Bell City vs. Scott County rivalry. Bell City had won all four sectional contests against the Braves from 2004 to 2007 and then had advanced to the state final four each year.

But the Braves finally found their way over the hump last winter in the fifth straight sectional meeting. They posted an 80-58 rout over the Cubs at Poplar Bluff High School.

Since then, the Braves have been the most dominant Class 1 basketball team in Southeast Missouri. They took third place at the state tournament last year. They have posted a 24-2 record so far this season, rank second in Class 1 behind only defending state champion Jefferson and won the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament in December for the first time since 1990 and the fifth time in school history.

"I'm very excited," Scott County's Drew Thomas said. "This is my last district championship game and I'm going to play as hard as I can."

Braves sophomore Otto Porter scores two Wednesday, February, 11, 2009, at the Show Me Center.

Scott County earned a bye through the first round of the district tournament then routed Richland 90-52 in the second round Tuesday. The Braves were losing to Richland 23-19 after the first quarter, but used their terrific speed and pressure defense to go on a 25-0 run to close out the first half.

"I didn't tell them anything," Scott County coach Ronnie Cookson said about his team being down early to Richland. "They just went out there and started doing it. They picked up on the press and caused some turnovers."

For Bell City to remain close throughout the game, it must find a way to bring the ball up against Scott County's pressure defense. The Cubs (15-10), which are unranked in Class 1, struggled against Leopold's full-court pressure defense in a 66-59 upset victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats in the semifinals Tuesday.

Bell City had held a 17-point lead against Leopold in the third quarter. But once the Wildcats began pressuring the Bell City guards more, they were able to cut the deficit to three points in the fourth before the Cubs held on with a solid final two minutes.

"It really showed a vulnerability of ours," Bell City interim coach Pat Niemczyk said about struggling against Leopold's press, adding that his team would work on doing a better job of handling the pressure when preparing for Scott County. "We really didn't move to the spots we needed to move to.

"With all the talent they've got, we obviously don't match up with them man to man. We're just going to try to do the best we can do and just play our game."

Arnold said he knows pulling off an upset to avenge last year's sectional loss will not be an easy task. He also said his team must do a better job of breaking the press.

"We've just got to get the ball to the middle," Arnold said. "We couldn't [against Leopold]."

Scott County and Bell City did not meet during the regular season.

"I've only seen them play twice, but I know they're really good," Bell City guard Ronnie Gross said. "I hope we can [stay with them]."

If Bell City is able to find ways to break the Scott County press, then it must get the ball inside to Arnold, Brandon Bell and Skylor Blackler. The Cubs scored inside successfully against Leopold, but Bell City players admitted they have struggled scoring inside this year.

One thing is certain -- it should be a fun game to watch with the two rivals in a do-or-die game for the sixth straight year.

"I was from Scott Central [went there during elementary school]," Bell said. "And so just playing against them, the No. 2 team in the state, it's going to feel real good."

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