DEXTER -- Dexter fell from the ranks of the undefeated Friday night, losing to Poplar Bluff 72-64 in a battle between two of the area's top teams.
"We are trying to put the pieces together to become the strongest team in Southeast Missouri come district tournament time," said Poplar Bluff assistant Jim Vaughan, who was filling in for John David Pattillo. "We want to win our district and be able to compete in the state tournament this year. Our kids have bought into that and we're working towards it every day. We never think for a second that somebody might be better than we are. We go in feeling like we're the dominant team, and we're going to play that way."
Point guard Tony Webb was the most dominant player on the floor, scoring a game-high 25 points. The Bearcats had no answer for his dribble penetration or mid-range jump shots. He scored 12 points in the first quarter to give Poplar Bluff a comfortable lead, then sealed the win in the fourth by hitting 9-of-12 free throws.
"When Tony comes to play, I don't know if anybody around here can stop him," said Vaughan. "He's got such a high level of energy. He barely came off the floor tonight."
Poplar Bluff (8-1) out-rebounded Dexter 43-30 in the game, and 14-4 in the first quarter. The early domination on the boards and Dexter's inability to hit 3-point shots allowed the Mules to jump out to a 26-11 lead.
Chris Hyten sank a trey at the end of the first, but the Bearcats were a paltry 1-of-9 from range in the period and trailed 26-14.
"Our kids decided in the locker room exactly how this game was going to begin," said Vaughan. "We made big plays early and hit a lot of shots. We kept the tempo up and stayed inspired."
In the second quarter, Dexter (5-1) was able to pull even in the rebounding department and cut Poplar Bluff's lead down to six points.
"That run they had there in the first half just killed us," said Sitze. "We just laid down and almost quit. We called a timeout, decided to do something about it, and we did. I'm proud of my kids. We came back from 17 points down and made a run at them. We just didn't match their intensity there at the beginning."
Willie Dooley sparked the offense, hitting a 3-pointer with four minutes left. Hyten, Chad Gill and Chris Carr followed suit as the Bearcats outscored Bluff 24-18 in the second quarter.
"Before we started the game, we knew we had to rebound," said Sitze. "When we did rebound with them, we played fine and were right there with them. They were just attacking us (in the first quarter). We looked tired and they looked fresh. They were just more aggressive than we were. New Madrid is going to be the same kind of team. We've got to find a way to play like they did the first quarter."
Dexter's intensity from the second quarter carried over into the second half. The Bearcats allowed just four Poplar Bluff points in the third quarter as Dexter took a 50-48 lead into the final period.
"We had a lull in the middle of the game," said Vaughan. "A lot of the credit goes to Dexter, they're a good basketball team. They're a great shooting team."
The Mules retook the lead early in the fourth quarter and never relinquished it, hitting 12-of-19 free throws down the stretch to preserve the 72-64 victory.
"Our kids never lost their composure," said Vaughan. "Nobody ever thought for a second that we were going to let this one get away. We did what we needed to do at the end of the game. We didn't shoot free throws as well as we wanted to, but we hit enough."
Cheron Pearson scored 12 points for Poplar Bluff, followed by freshman standout Tyler Hansbrough, who contributed 11. Gill led all Dexter scorers with 16 points, followed by Carr with 14 and Hyten with 12.
Pattillo wasn't in attendance due to a family emergency.