Wildcats wilt under Pirates’ defensive pressure

The New Bloomfield Wildcats were pinched, and it had nothing to do with the fact that it was St. Patrick’s Day and their team colors are orange and black.

Crane put the defensive squeeze on New Bloomfield in Thursday night’s Class 2 semifinal at the University of Missouri’s Hearnes Center, limiting the Wildcats to 36-percent shooting in the Pirates’ 68-49 victory.

The loss stopped a five-game winning streak that New Bloomfield assembled to reach the Final Four, its first appearance there since finishing fourth in Class 1A in 1995. The Wildcats (13-17) will now play No. 1-ranked Wellington-Napoleon (26-2) for third place at 6:40 tonight at Mizzou Arena.

Wellington-Napoleon fell to No. 4 Bernie 73-66 in double overtime in Thursday’s first semifinal.

“It’s tough, but the good thing is that we get to play (tonight),” first-year New Bloomfield head coach Tyler Clark said. “Only two teams in our class get to finish the season with a win, and we’re hoping to be one of those teams.

“We’re going to give it our all; we’re very thankful … to have this opportunity, but we’re not content. We want to go out there and play our hearts out, compete and be ready for Wellington-Napoleon.”

Meanwhile, Crane (26-5) — playing in the Final Four for the first time in school history — will face Bernie (28-4) for the Class 2 title at 6:50 p.m. Saturday.

“I think it’s a little more rewarding as a coach, watching these guys demonstrate how well they do what I expect them to do,” said Pirates head coach Rob Guerin, who made it to the Final Four as a player for third-place Chadwick in Class 1A in 1997.

Crane constantly badgered New Bloomfield with an irritating defensive presence Thursday night. With 6-foot-6 senior center Anthony Vermillion looming on the interior, the Pirates’ choking man-to-man defensive pressure pushed the Wildcats to the outer edges of the perimeter.

Senior guard Aaron Bedsworth and senior forward Daniel Berry accounted for all but nine of New Bloomfield’s points. Bedsworth — despite missing the final 5 minutes, 31 seconds of the second quarter after picking up his third foul — connected for 16 of his team-high 24 points in the second half. Berry added 16 points.

Bedsworth and Berry combined to go 13-of-17 from the field, including 7-of-14 from 3-point range. Bedsworth finished with five 3-pointers.

Overall, the Wildcats made just 16-of-44 shots and committed 15 turnovers.

“They got up in us (defensively), they made it tough on our ballhandlers,” Clark said. “When they have good ball pressure, it’s tough to move the ball around and run your motion sets.”

Guerin anticipated that it would be important to keep New Bloomfield’s backcourt from getting clean looks at the basket.

“They have some good guards who can shoot; we knew we had to get out on them,” Guerin said. “They proved it toward the end of the game that they can shoot, so we knew we had to get out and put a lot of pressure on their guards and make sure they weren’t getting wide-open shots.”

Speaking of shooters, Guerin has a special one in junior Levi Cook. The 6-1 guard matched Bedsworth by breaking out for 24 points and also had a game-high six assists. Sophomore Jordan Bowling contributed 12 points and Vermillion had 10, including a pair of emphatic alley-oop dunks that energized the Crane crowd.

“That may have been the best guard we faced all year and the best post player we faced all year,” Clark said of Cook and Vermillion. “They had exceptional games.”

The Wildcats were down 12-9 at the end of the first quarter, but the Pirates — who shot 42 percent (25-of-59) for the game — opened the second quarter with a 10-3 run. Senior forward Hunter Quick hit a jumper in the lane to put Crane up 22-12 with 5:58 to go in the first half.

New Bloomfield had just two baskets in the final 6:55 of the quarter, both coming from Berry. His conventional three-point play with 1:04 remaining in the half made it 28-18, but Vermillion countered with one of his scintillating slams with :45 left to send the Pirates into halftime with a 12-point advantage.

Crane stretched its lead to 41-23 on senior guard Zach Akins’ jumper in the lane at the 4:06 mark of the third quarter, but the Wildcats came back with a 12-6 run to give themselves a chance. Berry drove the lane to bring New Bloomfield within 47-35 with :27.7 to play in the quarter.

Bedsworth buried a 3 from the corner with 4:41 left in the game as the Wildcats trimmed their deficit to 54-43, but that would be as close as New Bloomfield would get.

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