SENATH - All year long, the Portageville Bulldogs appeared to be Southeast Missouri's best chance at making a Final Four run in Class 2A.
But the state-ranked Bulldogs, which may have peaked too early, stumbled into Friday night's Class 2A, District 1 championship game with Twin Rivers with four straight unimpressive games.
The second-seeded Royals took full advantage, defeating the top-seeded Bulldogs 53-48 to claim their first district title since 1995 and their fifth overall.
The Royals will play District 2 winner Charleston on Wednesday at 8:15 p.m. at Cape Central High School.
The Bulldogs finish their outstanding season at 24-4. It's the second straight year that Twin Rivers has eliminated Portageville in district play.
"(Twin Rivers is) playing the kind of ball right now that rewards district championships," said Portageville head coach Jim Bidewell. "We may have peaked out a little early in the year which is the first time that's ever happened. We didn't do anything different in practice, but we were playing midway through the year about like what (Twin Rivers is) playing right now. Sometimes it just works that way for no reason. We've really struggled for a couple of weeks."
Twin Rivers (24-4) trailed by as much as nine points in the fourth quarter but some stellar free throw shooting, coupled with poor free throwing shooting and bad decisions on Portageville's part, allowed the Royals to make the comeback.
The Royals outscored the Bulldogs 18-5 in the final five minutes.
"You don't usually get to come back on Portageville," said Twin Rivers head coach Scott Kruse. "But at the same time I've got a group of guys that probably watched the team in '95 go 29-1 and get beat by Ritter. I think about then they started thinking they wanted to do the same thing.
"It's big for the community. It's been a while. When you're in the district with Portageville and some of these other good teams, it takes a while sometimes to win a district championship."
And early in the fourth quarter, it appeared as if Twin Rivers would have to wait even longer. Portageville took a 44-35 lead with 5:44 left in the game on a J.T. Williams baseline jumper.
The Royals' Seth McBroom followed that up with a momentum-swinging 3-pointer to cut the lead to 44-38.
The Bulldogs still led 46-41 after an Eric Booker free throw with 3:01 left in the game, but things started unraveling from that point thereafter.
Scott Forest scored the Royals' next six points to take the lead at 47-46 with 2:02 left.
Dantwan Chillers gave the Bulldogs the lead 25 seconds later with a cut to the basket but it was short-lived as Twin Rivers' Robby Moore hit a 17-foot jumper from the corner with 1:15 left to give the Royals the lead for good.
Portageville worked for a go-ahead shot but Forest came up with a steal with 30 seconds left.
McBroom was fouled and made both free throws to give the Royals a 51-48 lead.
Portageville called timeout and set up a play for Williams to try to tie the game but his 3-point shot was off the mark with 0:09 left.
"When J.T. is feeling it like he was, we kind of give him an open rein," said Bidewell. "But no game like this is decided on one play. You second guess yourself and there's some things that I'd do different if I looked back. But all you can do is carry it to next year."
Forest iced the game with two free throws. He was 9-for-10 from the charity stripe, finishing with 15 points. The Royals hit 17-of-20 free throws in the game and they made 11-of-12 in the fourth quarter.
"They've got to (hit free throws) every day in practice under pressure situations," said Kruse. "They enjoy that stuff I really feel like and that goes back to feeling confident in themselves and right now I feel they are."
Portageville was just 4-of-10 from the foul line in the game. They were just 2-of-7 in the fourth quarter, including a couple of one-and-one situations.
"The shots wouldn't fall late and they fell for them," said Bidewell. "For the last week or so our shooting has really gone cold. When that happens it makes the team look bad. When you're scoring the coach looks great, when you're not, it doesn't look very good. It's not like we haven't worked on it. It's just one of those things that the good Lord has his reasons for it. We're just going to leave it with him and we're going to hold our head up in a loss just like we were if we'd won."
Portageville came out of the gates looking sharp, establishing a 14-11 lead after one quarter of play.
The Bulldogs continued to play well in the second quarter, holding a six-point lead at three different points in the period.
The Bulldogs led 28-24 at the half.
The Royals scored the first six points of the third quarter to take their first lead of the game at 30-28.
But the Bulldogs regrouped to take a 39-35 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"Portageville is an incredibly tough team," said Kruse. "It just takes a special group to somehow beat them and I've got one. We did enough things right to win but I think it's mostly guts and their attitude."
Twin Rivers' Steve Deken, a 6-7 center, led all scorers with 16 points.
"Give Twin Rivers and Coach Kruse a lot of credit," said Bidewell. "When their backs are up against the wall, he made some adjustments and it worked. He's out-coached me two years in a row."
Chillers led the Bulldogs with 15 points. Booker added 12 points and Williams scored 11.
Portageville will graduate six seniors, including the starting five of Chillers, Booker, Williams, Bryant Sims and Jordan French. Tremaine Smith will also graduate for the Bulldogs.
"This is a group that I wanted to keep coaching," said Bidewell. "At this time of the year most of the time I'm ready for it to be over, but with this group I believe I'd like to coach until the end of school. They make good grades, they're always at practice, they're never discipline problems. They're just a group of kids that's one of the best, if not the best, group I've ever coached. And I don't just throw those words out either. They really are a good group of kids. They'll always be champs in my heart."