SIKESTON - The Sikeston Bulldogs basketball team ended the year on a positive note, defeating Farmington and Notre Dame heading into Christmas break.
Now the Bulldogs will see if a long layoff will have any effect when they host a red-hot Charleston Bluejays team on Friday at the Field House at 7:30 p.m.
As usual, the matchup pits two of the biggest rivals in the area in what has always been a great game -- the last six games have been decided by six points or less.
"It seems like every game goes down to a last-second shot," said Sikeston head coach Gregg Holifield. "The last three or four it's unbelievable the chances of that game going down to a last-second situation."
The gymnasium is always packed and the atmosphere is electric when the Bulldogs and Bluejays take the floor in their annual SEMO Conference game right out of Christmas break.
Holifield feels the home crowd's support will be beneficial to his team.
"It's a good atmosphere for us to play in and I'm sure it will be a big crowd," said Holifield. "Anytime Sikeston and Charleston play the game gets a lot of attention. People really come out to watch it and I know our players are really looking forward to it. We're very young still and every game, every situation, seems to be a learning experience."
The Bluejays gained some valuable experience playing in front of large crowds during their run in the University High School Christmas Tournament.
"I think we'll be ready for that kind of atmosphere," said Charleston head coach Danny Farmer. "The (U-High) helped prepare us for that. It was like a new beginning with a lot of kids because they've never played with that many people in the stands. I don't think that's going to bother us."
Sikeston went out of the first half of 2001 with a 5-4 record, but they haven't played a game since Dec. 14. But Holifield thinks the break was a perfect opportunity to get some much-needed practice time.
"I think this year we've had some valuable practice time -- hopefully the layoff will be beneficial," said Holifield. "We've had time to prepare and get better in certain areas. We've really had two good weeks of practices and we've improved our conditioning."
The Bluejays (7-4) on the other hand, have stayed sharp over the break, rolling through the U-High Tournament with their closest game being 10 points.
Plus, they have already posted a victory against the Bulldogs when they won 71-65 in the Sikeston Invitational back on Dec. 7.
"I think we were just fortunate the last time we played," said Farmer. "We had the momentum going at the end of the game. But I've also seen the same thing happen when they had (former Bulldog) Tony Jones and he hit a shot at the end and Sikeston had the momentum going. I think it's going to be the same as always. It's going to be an exciting game all the way to the end. It's going to be a game that anybody can win."
Both schools have played a difficult schedule. Sikeston has other losses to Dexter, Marion, Ill., and Blytheville, Ark., the latter two by a combined three points.
The Bulldogs' most impressive victories were against DeSoto and Notre Dame.
Charleston has lost to Dexter, Kennett, Hazelwood Central and Notre Dame.
"They're an outstanding basketball team and they have a terrific tradition," said Holifield. "I had an opportunity to watch them play in the Christmas Tournament and they're playing extremely well right now. They're as talented as anybody around. And they've got as good a player as anybody in Jordy Mixon."
Mixon has quietly put together an all-state caliber season for the Bluejays, averaging 20 points and seven rebounds per game.
Mixon scored 24 points against Sikeston in the first meeting, so Holifield knows his team will have to find a way to contain the 5-foot-11 senior.
"We're going to really try to give him to serious attention but you really can't focus on one particular player because the people surrounding Jordy are so good," said Holifield. "On a given night they've got four or five different players that can beat you."
Including 6-4 senior swingman Lezcano Dean, who has already signed a letter of intent to attend Long Beach State. Dean, who has sat out some games due to injury, is averaging 11.5 points and five rebounds per game.
Also scoring in double figures is 6-5 freshman Ashton Farmer, son of the head coach. He averages 12 points and seven rebounds per game.
Other contributors are 6-5 junior center Kewain Gant (7 ppg, 10 rpg, 4 bpg), guard Dontay Clark (9 ppg) and guard Deshaundry Hamilton (8 ppg).
The Bluejays will play without do-it-all senior Jemorrio Betts, who will have his knee scoped and will miss about a month of action.
"(Depth is) my concern," said Farmer. "That was a concern going into the tournament. I will probably play some of my B-team players. Because seven may not be enough. Betts brings a lot to our team -- he's one of our best players."
The Bulldogs got a good first half of the season out of junior forward Lontas McClinton (6-3), who averaged about 19 points and nine rebounds per game.
Junior guard Lavar Morgan averaged 11 points, four assists and four rebounds per game while senior Justin Freeman averaged about 12 points per game while hitting 45 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Farmer said his defense will be focused on those three, especially McClinton, who scored 24 on the Bluejays in the last meeting.
It's hard to stop McClinton -- we'd like to stop him, but if he gets his then we want to stop everybody else," said Farmer. "We definitely want to stop Morgan and we don't want Freeman to hurt us too bad. We're going to have to win the game on the defensive end of the court."
Holifield knows this is an important game, not just for the sake of getting a big rival win, but because it is a SEMO Conference matchup.
The Bulldogs are currently 1-0 in the league with their win over new member Notre Dame.
"Going into the Christmas break we'd won two straight and we had some momentum," said Holifield. "We'd like to come out of the break with a win, especially on our home court. We just want to put ourselves in a position to compete. We know it's going to be a difficult game."
Farmer looks at this matchup as an important game because the following Tuesday his squad will have another difficult game when they play New Madrid County Central.
"This is a momentum builder -- this will be a big boost for us if we can win it going into the New Madrid game," said Farmer. "Maybe it will propel us to play a good game against (NMCC)."