Wildcats’ Final Four appearance more than matter of luck

— Daniel Berry is not going to mess with the mojo.

New Bloomfield’s charmed postseason existence has brought Berry and the Wildcats to a point that at one time this season would have seemed far-fetched — a surprising slot in the Class 2 Final Four.

New Bloomfield (13-16) clashes with Crane (25-5) in a matchup of unranked teams in a state semifinal at 5 this afternoon at the University of Missouri’s Hearnes Center in Columbia. In the first semifinal at 3:20, No. 4 Bernie (27-4) squares off against No. 1 Wellington-Napoleon (26-1).

Berry — who missed nine games in the second half of the season because of an ankle injury — doesn’t want to disturb a routine that has helped play a pivotal role in the Wildcats winning eight of their last 11, including a flawless five-game postseason run.

New Bloomfield — which was just 4-11 in late January — is back at the Final Four for the first time since 1995, when it finished fourth in Class 1A.

“Honestly, I don’t want to change a thing, I really don’t,” Berry — a 6-foot-2 forward — said during Tuesday afternoon’s practice at the high school. “We’re on a good streak right now.”

Berry then revealed a superstitious side meant to safeguard New Bloomfield’s status.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for weeks and weeks. … I try to eat the same things, (wear) the same clothes — wash them when I can,” he jokingly said.

The Wildcats serve as a statistical anomaly this year as the only team in all five classes — both boys and girls — to advance to the Final Four with a sub-.500 record.

However, New Bloomfield proved its playoff worthiness with a buzzer-beating, 66-64 sectional win over Canton, followed by a 56-54 victory over No. 2 Salisbury — which was 27-1 — in quarterfinal play last Saturday night.

“(Critics) can say whatever they want,” first-year Wildcats head coach Tyler Clark said. “All that matters is that we believe in each other. That’s all that matters.

“At this point, a record doesn’t matter. It depends on who you play, there are so many factors. We’re winning when it counts.”

Crane — located southwest of Springfield — carries a 17-game winning streak into this afternoon’s semifinal. The Pirates reached the Final Four with a 69-51 quarterfinal win over Linn, a member of the Show-Me Conference along with New Bloomfield.

Six-foot-one junior guard Levi Cook, an all-state selection last year, averages team-highs of both 22.5 points and 9.6 rebounds for Crane. Anthony Vermillion — a 6-6 senior center — also scores in double figures at 11.2 points per game and averages 7.0 rebounds.

“(Cook) is an exceptional player. … He’s a matchup problem for just about anybody,” Clark said. “He can hurt you in a lot of ways — shooting, driving, passing. They run everything through him. Half the time, their kids are looking to get him the ball.

“They run a lot of alley-oop plays for (Vermillion). He’s got good size and he finishes really well. When you’re running lob plays for kids all of the time, that tells you that (he) can finish really well. That takes a lot of athleticism, a lot of coordination.”

The Pirates average 68.2 points per game. The Wildcats, who have taken on Clark’s defensive persona, held Salisbury 12 points below its season average and are allowing 53.5 points per contest.

New Bloomfield senior guard Aaron Bedsworth noted that the Wildcats have to limit Cook’s scoring opportunities.

“We have to keep right up on him and don’t let him pull up and shoot,” said the 6-0 Bedsworth, who averages a team-high 17.1 points. “When he drives, you’ve got to have help-side.”

Bedsworth is one of three players who score in double figures for New Bloomfield, which averages 52.9 points per game. Berry averages 11.3 points and grabs a team-high 7.0 rebounds per game, while 5-9 senior guard Kolby O’Dowd averages 10.9 points.

Clark stressed that the surplus of defensive schemes in his playbook have suitably prepared his squad for a variety of opposing strategies. He expects Crane to employ a man-to-man defense.

“We have, like, 15 different defenses … so our kids see those different defenses every day,” Clark said. “We have a (offensive) plan for each defense because we run those defenses and we have those in our back pocket.”

Berry emphasized that the Wildcats don’t need to validate their place in the Final Four to anyone.

“All I’ve got to show them is the bracket and we’re on there,” Berry said. “Right there is proof that we are good enough and we made it, just like the other three teams.”

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