COLUMBIA - Dave Porter can't deny his love affair for Poplar Bluff. He coached the Mules for eight seasons, his daughter Ashley was born here and he made lifelong friends he still stays in close contact with.
Among the closest is current Poplar Bluff coach John David Pattillo, who played for Porter in high school and was an assistant with him at Lafayette.
Those connections make this weekend's chore all the more difficult. A chance at winning the state title means Porter's Lafayette Lancers will have to deny his second-favorite team in the state, Poplar Bluff, in Friday's Class 5 semifinal at the Hearnes Center.
"But at 7:55 Friday, I won't think about that at all," Porter said. "It's another great challenge for our basketball team."
In the other semifinal, sixth-ranked Blue Springs (27-2) squares off against No. 9 Jefferson City (24-3). The championship game will be televised at 8:05 Saturday on Fox Sports Midwest. Porter, who said he cried when Pattillo took Poplar Bluff to its second-ever final four last season, has mixed emotions about facing him in the playoffs. The two have talked on the telephone nearly everyday the past several weeks.
"I don't like to face him, but it's not the hardest on he and I because we love to compete and have a great deal of respect for one another," Porter said. "It's the hardest on our wives because they absolutely hate it. Your heart wants to root for the other guy, but you can't because your husband is coaching the other team.
If they had their way, this game would never take place."
But it will, meaning Porter must find a way to slow the surging Mules. After a 1-4 start, Poplar Bluff returns to the final four for the second straight year and third time in school history. The Mules, who finished fourth last season and second to Jefferson City 1993, have won 14 games in a row and 19 of their last 20.
"I think anybody that knows anything about basketball wouldn't necessarily say we were a lock to get there," Pattillo said. "I do think we're playing awfully good basketball and that's going to give us an opportunity. I feel real good about where we're at this point."
Pattillo hopes last year's state experience will help his team stay loose this weekend, but he refused to say the Mules were motivated by their fourth-place finish.
"I don't know that I would say unfinished business. The team we have now is a different team," Pattillo said. "The good news is we've played there and had a chance to be part of it. Hopefully it's not such a new experience and our complete focus will be on winning a couple games."
Poplar Bluff's run through the postseason has been an impressive one. The third-ranked Mules outlasted No. 5 Hazelwood Central by two points in sectionals, then topped No. 7 Chaminade 83-74 in last Saturday's quarterfinal.
The Mules continue to get big-time production from all-state junior center Tyler Hansbrough, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds against Mizzou recruit Kalen Grimes in the sectional round, then posted 29 points and 13 rebounds against Chaminade. But the supporting cast has been just as good.
Devon Brown, who had career highs of five 3-pointers and 26 points Saturday, and Anthony Gilberto have reached double figures the past two games. Point guard Ben Hansbrough is averaging 4.4 assists in postseason play and senior Glen Yandell has provided solid inside play off the bench.
"I still think we've got a couple guys that haven't really showed what they can do," Pattillo said. "They have in spurts, but I think when we get everything going all at once we'll be pretty difficult to stop."
Porter knows the challenge firsthand. After his Lancers won their quarterfinal game against Vianney, Porter stuck around to scout his team's state semifinal opponent. He said he has a remedy in mind for slowing the Mules.
"The best thing you do is buy a great big bottle of Tums and stuff that will take care of migraine headaches. Other than that, it's just a piece of cake," Porter said. "So far there haven't been a lot of geniuses out there figure out what to do. That's our challenge is to try to find something. That's still a work in progress."
Lafayette (27-3) had some success containing the Mules in a 49-48 road loss on Jan. 2. In a game that featured 10 ties and 15 lead changes, the Lancers held Hansbrough to a season-low 14 points and had a one-point lead before missing a crucial free throw with 15 seconds left.
Hansbrough, who had 19 rebounds, won the game 13 seconds later with an offensive putback.
Although Lafayette held Hansbrough 13 points below his season average, Porter was quick to point out that Hansbrough was still somewhat out of shape in just his fifth game of the season.
"Tyler is obviously the type of player every coach dreams to coach. I think every coach would like to have that type of guy to build a team around," Porter said. "But John David just doesn't have Tyler. We're very aware of the big game Brown had on Saturday, Gilberto's big shots, Ben's abilities - right on down the line.
"If the old adage is you're no better than your weakest link, then everybody in the state is in trouble."
Second-ranked Lafayette (27-3) enters the weekend with a 15-game winning streak dating back to a two-point loss against Fort Zumwalt West in mid January. The Lancers are 18-1 since losing at Poplar Bluff.
A year after losing in the state quarterfinals, Lafayette's season almost ended in the same place this year when it trailed Vianney 22-4 with just over five minutes left in the first half. But the Lancers rallied with a 13-0 run and had the lead by the end of the third quarter.