The New Bloomfield Wildcats are still giant killers, and the giants just keep getting bigger and bigger.
The Wildcats continued their improbable postseason run Saturday night, knocking off the state's second-ranked Salisbury Panthers by a 56-54 score.
"We painted this as David versus Goliath and I gave all the boys stones before the game," New Bloomfield head coach Tyler Clark said after his team's win at Moberly Area Community College. "We had our slings and our stones and we brought down Goliath."
The Wildcats entered districts as a No. 5 seed with a sub-.500 record, only to beat the 1, 2 and 4 seeds to win the title. Then they beat Canton in the sectional round on a last-second tip-in before taking out a Salisbury team that came into Saturday's game with a gaudy 27-1 record.
"At this point, I'll play anybody," Clark said. "I'll play a Class 5 school, we're ready."
New Bloomfield's next opponent will come Thursday, when they Wildcats (13-16) make their first trip to the Final Four since the 1994-95 season. This time they'll get an unranked team, as they'll face Crane (25-5) at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Hearnes Center.
"This feels awesome, it's amazing," said senior guard Aaron Bedsworth, who scored a team-high 22 points for New Bloomfield. "We played as a team, we just stuck together like brothers."
The Wildcats never flinched against the Panthers, neither early nor late.
Perhaps the game's biggest moment came midway through the fourth quarter when Salisbury took a 44-43 lead on a layup by Austin Francis, who had a monster performance with 26 points and 19 rebounds.
But just 17 seconds later, Bedsworth canned a 3-pointer to stifle the roars of the massive Salisbury crowd that had come to life after Francis' score.
"I just tried to treat it like any other shot," Bedsworth said.
The Panthers kept coming and took their last lead at 47-46 with 2:49 remaining.
But the Wildcats had another 17-second response, as this time, senior guard Kolby O'Dowd canned a 3 with 2:32 left to give the Wildcats the lead for good.
Playing with the lead, New Bloomfield made 7-of-10 free throws in the final two minutes to salt away the win.
Clark was quick to credit his team's defense for the victory.
"We held a team that's averaging 66 points a game to 54, so credit to the kids," he said. "They bought into my system in my first year here."
Clark added the Wildcats pulled off the upset just the way they had planned.
"We did our homework," he said. "Since Wednesday night I busted my tail. I scouted film and got a great game plan and the kids executed."
The game was close from the start, as the first quarter featured four ties and six lead changes, and ended with Salisbury up 15-12.
The Wildcats tied it for the sixth time with 5:11 left before halftime as Bedsworth drilled a 3 as part of his 14-point first half. New Bloomfield then took the lead with 4:28 remaining on a three-point play by senior guard Daniel Berry.
New Bloomfield took a 26-23 lead into intermission despite a huge effort from Francis, who had a double-double in the first half alone with 17 points and 12 rebounds. But the rest of the Panthers had just six points.
"We just tried to play team defense, to play all the guys the same," Bedsworth said. "Of course, we put an emphasis on the big guy because he's great inside."
The Wildcats held the lead for most of the third quarter, until the Panthers tied it with 1:45 left. But New Bloomfield took back control, aided in part by sophomore forward Greg Bedsworth's layup at the buzzer, and led 40-36 heading into the final quarter.
"We knew we could do it," Clark said. "All season long, we battled and worked on getting better at defense and we found a way to make it happen at the right time.
"What a ride it's been."
Berry ended up with a double-double of his own, as he amassed 12 points and 10 rebounds. O'Dowd also scored 12 points for the Wildcats.