Friday night, the much-anticipated game lived up to the billing as top-seeded Sikeston defeated No. 2 Notre Dame 69-65 in front of nearly 3,000 fans that crammed into the Sikeston Field House for the school's 17th district championship.
The victory clinches Sikeston's first district title since 2000, when they won their second straight. It's the Bulldogs' third district championship in coach Gregg Holifield's eight years at the helm.
It's a feat that mirrors previous coach Fred Johnson, who also achieved three district titles in eight years as the Bulldog coach from 1991-1998.
"I've been ready -- we've been in a drought," said Holifield. "It's nice to get another one. This is the best atmosphere I've seen here since possibly 2000 and maybe even better than that. I can't even remember that far back. It was nice to get out of here with a win."
Notre Dame finishes its season 22-4.
Sikeston defeated Notre Dame 83-61 in a mid-December rout at Notre Dame Regional High School. But nobody thought a second matchup would be so lopsided, including Holifield.
"We have a lot of respect for Notre Dame and we knew how tough it was going to be," said Holifield, whose team has won 11 straight games. "The first time we played them we knew that was no indication of how this game was going to be. They're so well-coached and they're great kids and they can all play. This is as hard as we've fought in a game all year, including Bluff and many other games."
Sikeston's free throw shooting -- which had been uncharacteristically poor throughout the game as they only made three of their first 10 -- lifted the team at the right time as they made four straight in the final 15 seconds to secure the victory.
Michael Porter hit two free throws with 15 seconds left and Julian Beard made a pair with eight seconds left, both times to give Sikeston a five-point lead.
Sikeston inexplicably fouled Notre Dame, which was out of timeouts, with two seconds left. Alex Ressel made the first free throw, but missed the second as Porter grabbed the rebound and dribbled out the clock.
"It was just a tremendous basketball game," said Notre Dame coach Paul Hale. "Both teams brought their 'A' games. The fans can't be slighted for that one. We lost to a very, very good basketball team on their floor and we were a turnover or a couple layups away from winning that thing. We've got nothing to hang our heads about."
Sikeston came out of the gates on fire. Notre Dame's bread-and-better, the full-court zone press, was ineffective as Sikeston consistently dribbled through it and got easy layups.
Sikeston led 12-6, forcing Hale to burn an early timeout.
Notre Dame responded with an 8-0 run to take its only lead of the game at 14-12 with 3:59 left in the first.
Sikeston quickly got the lead back as they held on for a 20-18 first quarter lead. Notre Dame never got closer than two points the rest of the night.
"We both play very similar -- up-and-down tempo, pressure defense," said Holifield. "I knew this was how it would be and I knew it would be exciting. Win or lose I knew it was going to be a barnburner and that's how it turned out to be."
Sikeston opened up its biggest lead of the game, 30-20, in the second quarter as they went on a 10-2 to start the period fueled by Rod Moore's strong play -- the senior had 10 points in the second quarter alone.
Notre Dame managed to cut the lead to 36-34 by halftime following a Ryan Willen 3-pointer as he was being fouled with 35 seconds left. He missed free throw, which could have made it a one-point game.
The two teams battled to a stalemate in the third quarter as Sikeston took a 48-46 lead into the fourth. The Bulldogs led by as much as six twice in the period, but couldn't push the lead any further.
Sikeston built the lead to eight points twice in the fourth quarter when Hale decided to deploy the full-court press against the fatigued Bulldogs.
"We handled the ball pretty well early, but then they put it back on us and we turned it over," said Holifield. "They're so relentless and their kids play so hard. In the second half they clamped it down and we struggled with it."
In hindsight, Hale thought he should've put the press on even sooner.
"They handled it in the first half," said Hale. "We threw it back in there and I probably waited a little too long to get back to it."
The press caused a pair of turnovers late which allowed Notre Dame to cut the lead to 65-62 with 20 seconds left.
After Porter's free throws with 15 seconds left, Xavier Delph went coast-to-
coast for a layup with 9.7 seconds remaining.
Beard then sank both his free throws to ice it.
Sikeston finished 7-of-14 from the free throw line. Notre Dame was just 4
Sikeston was 0-8 from 3-point range. But the Bulldogs dominated the paint as they scored the majority of their points inside. They were 31-56 (55 percent) from two-point range.
"We didn't guard as well as I thought we could inside," said Hale. "They had their way in there. A lot of those were second and third shots. We allowed too many second and third shots -- they just out-jumped us. They were just a little better leapers than us inside."
Sikeston out-rebounded Notre Dame 34-24. Sikeston committed 15 turnovers compared to Notre Dame's 21 miscues.
Beard led the Bulldogs with 19 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.
"I thought Julian Beard really stepped up and had a big night in the second half," said Holifield.
Porter had 16 points with nine rebounds and six assists.
"He's a solid player and a great kid and he keeps getting better and better," said Holifield.
Moore scored 16 points with seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. Isaac Porter had eight points with three rebounds and three steals. Kash Bratcher added six points with three rebounds and a pair of assists.
Junior guard Blake Taylor once again had key minutes off the bench as he had a steal and layup, had four rebounds and two assists.
"Rod Moore carried us in the first half," said Holifield. "He's been a consistent player for us all year. He averages 13 points and 8 boards per game. He's steady. He goes out every night and does the job and makes a lot of things happen. Plus he did a good job on Ressel I thought. Kash Bratcher did a great job. He handled the ball and didn't turn it over very often against as good a pressure as we've seen all year. I thought it was a total team effort from 1-
Willen, a 6-6 sophomore, had 20 points with 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. Ressel, a strong 6-3 senior, had 17 points with five rebounds and four blocked shots.
"They're both outstanding players," said Holifield. "Ressel is as good a post player and understands the game as well as anybody around here in the low post. Willen, my gosh. He's just going to be a player. He gets better every time I see him."
Delph finished with 14 points, five assists and two steals. Frankie Ellis, a senior guard, added eight points with four assists and a pair of steals.
Holifield said that Notre Dame was deserving of its No. 5 state ranking in Class 4.
"I think they're outstanding," said Holifield. "I think they're as good as any team we've played all year. We've played some really good teams and they're as good as any of them."
Sikeston eclipsed 20 wins for the first time since 1995, also the Bulldogs' final four year. They also passed 20 wins in 1994 on their way to a state quarterfinal finish.
"The last month they've been very hot," said Hale of Sikeston. "They went to Central and beat them 20 points. They beat Poplar Bluff here. They may be the best team in Southeast Missouri right now."