But the Mules' 20-game league winning streak came to an end on Friday night as the Sikeston Bulldogs defeated them 67-62 in front of a jam-packed homecoming crowd at the Field House.
Poplar Bluff, the two-time defending state champions, entered the game ranked No. 1 in the SEMO area media poll and No. 10 in the state in Class 5.
It's the Mules' first loss in the SEMO Conference since losing to Charleston on Feb. 21, 2003, which also marked the last time Poplar Bluff lost to a team in Southeast Missouri.
The Bulldogs ended the streak by playing tough defense and executing efficiently on offense.
"It was just our night," said Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield. "A lot of things went our way. We got some breaks and we took advantage of it. We just made some shots when we needed to. Both teams played hard and both teams were competing. We knocked some free throws down and things went our way. We've lost some close games this year when it didn't go our way. Tonight things went our way."
The Bulldogs (13-6, 4-2 SEMO) hit some clutch free throws down the stretch to keep the lead, including four straight by Rod Moore in the final 30 seconds to push the lead to three points both times.
Poplar Bluff (15-5, 4-1 SEMO) all-stater Ben Hansbrough, a Mississippi State signee, attempted a game-tying 3-pointer with five seconds left but it was off the mark.
The Mules fouled Blake Taylor, who sank both free throws with two seconds left to seal the victory.
Hansbrough had a tough night from the field as he failed to connect on any 3-pointers. He did score 23 points, but had a low shooting percentage.
"Ben's played that way all year," said first year Poplar Bluff coach Travis Brown. "He's defended tough. Tonight he didn't get shots to fall, I think he came away with 23, but it wasn't his best night. He had difficulties and you have to give them credit. And some of it's on Ben's shoulders. They did a nice job defensively all around, not just on Ben."
Holifield said keeping fresh players on Hansbrough was key in the game.
"We just basically tried to get up and guard them and try to help on Ben as much as we could," said Holifield. "He's such a good player. He can beat you off the dribble, he raises you up and gets space. We tried to help on him and he still hurt us. He still got a bunch of looks and they didn't hit the shots I'm sure they normally make."
Sikeston trailed 50-46 in the fourth quarter, but a 7-0 run pushed the Bulldogs ahead where they would stay for good.
Kash Bratcher made two free throws with 2:36 left to give Sikeston a 55-52 lead.
One possession later, Julian Beard canned a huge 3-pointer from the left wing to give the Bulldogs a 58-52 lead.
The Bulldogs led by as much as 60-53 with 1:38 left in the game on a Michael Porter basket.
But the Mules were able to keep it interesting.
An Allan Spencer 3-pointer with 1:04 left in the game cut the lead to 60-57.
They were able to cut the lead to one twice on Hansbrough drives, but Moore's free throws kept the Mules at bay.
"It comes down to little things," said Brown. "It's not just the end of the ballgame, it's the whole night. We didn't defend as well as we usually do. Offensively, you just have to give Sikeston credit. They really did a nice job defensively. They're athletic, they executed extremely well. You wouldn't expect anything different. They're extremely well-coached. That's a good ballclub."
The two teams battled to 12 ties and 15 lead changes in the game.
The Bulldogs trailed by as much as 15-12 late in the first quarter but Porter broke loose for a transition slam dunk to excite the crowd with 15 seconds left in the period.
Sikeston kept the momentum and took charge in the second quarter as they out-scored the Mules 23-16 in the period.
The Bulldogs trailed 27-26 after a Jack March 3-pointer, but they went on an 11-4 run to end the quarter, including a steal and layin by Isaac Porter with six seconds left to push the Sikeston lead to 37-31.
The Mules, however, got back in the game in the third quarter, out-scoring the Bulldogs 15-9. The score was tied 46-46 heading into the fourth quarter.
"They really picked up the intensity and we didn't match it," said Holifield. "They out-played us in the third quarter. But I thought in the fourth quarter we picked our intensity back up and played much better."
The Mules shot 24-of-54 (44 percent) from the field, but were a paltry 2-of
-14 from 3-point range.
"They jumped passing lanes a little bit," said Brown. "They did a nice job of not letting us surround them. They brought help when we got to the basket. When you don't shoot it well it looks like a lot of things don't work for you. We made some uncharacteristic mistakes tonight, but a lot of that is due to Sikeston. They did a whale of a job."
Sikeston shot 25-of-50 (50 percent) from the field, yet they were only 1-of-6 from downtown. The Bulldogs out-rebounded Poplar Bluff 32-to-29.
The Bulldogs made 16-of-20 from the charity stripe while Poplar Bluff was 12-of-20.
"We talked about their cross-screens in the post and ball screens and talked about how to defend it," said Brown. "Their execution was excellent and our defense wasn't. That's what it comes down to."
Beard led the way for the Bulldogs with 16 points and a pair of steals. Michael Porter had 13 points with eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
Brown said the large, raucous crowd and the playoff-type atmosphere is nothing new to his team, which oftentimes played in front of capacity crowds the past few years with graduated All-American Tyler Hansbrough.
"We knew it would be like this," said Brown. "It was homecoming. Sikeston's got great fans, they've got a great student section. We knew it was going to be packed and we knew it would be hot. But late in the year you wouldn't want to play in any other type of atmosphere. It's good for us and we'll learn from it."
Even when the Bulldogs led by eight early in the third quarter, Holifield knew the game would be a battle to the end.
"We knew Bluff wouldn't go away," said Holifield.
"We just wanted to put ourselves in a position to build our lead with some free throws and we made them down the stretch. We're fortunate to beat a good team tonight. They're going to win a lot of games. They've been in so many big games I knew we'd have to play well to beat them."
Spencer and Ricky Taylor each had 11 points for the Mules.
Moore added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs. Isaac Porter had eight points with seven rebounds and three steals.
Bratcher also had eight points with four assists. Ray Rodgers had eight points and four rebounds off the bench.
Sikeston will play at Oran on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
The Sikeston J.V. team improved to 15-4 on the season with a 58-55 win against Poplar Bluff. The Bulldogs are also 5-1 in conference play.
Sikeston jumped out to a 21-2 first quarter lead and appeared to be on the verge of blowing out the J.V. Mules.
But Poplar Bluff closed the gap to 30-20 by halftime. Sikeston extended it back to 48-34 heading into the fourth quarter but the Mules rallied again.
The Mules' Jordan Chaligoj attempted a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer but it was off the mark.
Sikeston was led by Brandon Washington's 17 points. Stephen Jackson added 14 points with seven rebounds. Richard Andrews had 10 points with seven assists, six steals and three rebounds.
Sherwin Jones had six points with five assists and three steals and Dominic Fondon had six points with three blocked shots and three rebounds.
Poplar Bluff was led by Chaligoj's 11 points.