CAPE GIRARDEAU -- All-stater Ben Hansbrough converted play after play in the final quarter to keep the Poplar Bluff Mules alive in a 78-76 thriller over the Notre Dame Bulldogs on Friday.
In a contest that more than lived up to its pre-game hype, Notre Dame, ranked fifth in Class 4, battled the two-time defending Class 5 champions on even terms.
With the score at 52-51 favoring the Mules (17-5) entering the fourth quarter, Notre Dame (20-3) grabbed momentum and built a lead of 69-62, largest of the game for either team, with about 2:45 left.
Then Hansbrough, the Mississippi State University recruit, took charge with 18 of his game-high 39 points in the final period.
"He's the best and that's what great players do," said Poplar Bluff's first-year coach Travis Brown. "It comes down to willing yourself to a win and I think we did that tonight."
Two consecutive 3-pointers by Hansbrough pulled the Mules to within one at 69-68 with two minutes to go. His free throw and ensuing basket off an inbounds play sent Poplar Bluff ahead 71-69 with 1:45 on the clock.
The Bulldogs' Kirk Boeller, who matched Hansbrough's four 3-pointers, then lit the scoreboard with a trey from the right corner to retake the lead at 72
Back came Hansbrough with his fourth 3-pointer of the evening for a 74-72 Mule advantage.
"When the game was on the line, I just felt like I had to do what I had to do to win the game," said Hansbrough, who credited a loss to Sikeston in their last outing as a motivating factor.
He added, "When you lose something that you feel you shouldn't have lost, it puts more fuel in you. Sometimes a loss is, not necessarily good, but it's a wake-up call."
With Poplar Bluff in the drivers' seat and time ticking away, Mules' guards Allan Spencer and Kevin Hutson sealed the deal.
"He (Hansbrough) got us there and the other kids finished it off," said Brown. "Spencer and Hutson's free-throws down the stretch were huge."
Hutson, a reserve, extended the lead to 76-72 with two clutch free throws with 20 seconds to go, then Spencer covered two free throws by Notre Dame sophomore Ryan Willen with two of his own for a 78-74 edge with 8.9 seconds left, rendering Willen's basket at the buzzer meaningless.
"Without everybody's effort through that entire game, we would not have won," said Hansbrough. "Every little play helped us out. Everybody had a role in winning."
Neither team was able to gain a significant advantage throughout the closely-
contested game. Poplar Bluff led 19-18 after the first quarter, then the score was deadlocked at 39 at the half. The third-quarter score favored the Mules, 52-51.
Notre Dame's vaunted gambling, pressure defense created a slight edge in turnovers, 21-18, but had little success in preventing the Mules from getting frequent inside scoring opportunities.
Ricky Taylor, the Mules' 6-foot-1 swingman, made a living underneath with 15 points, nearly all on drives, putbacks or points off the break. Hansbrough also found lanes to the hoop for drives, two resulting in conventional 3-point plays. Overall, the Mules converted three of four 3-point plays.
Free throws proved to be a deciding factor in the game's outcome as equal numbers of 2- and 3-point field goals were shared by each team.
Poplar Bluff sank 18-of-20 (90 percent) from the stripe, while Notre Dame went 16-of-23 (69.5 percent).
Counteracting Hansbrough's monster night, Notre Dame found scoring balance with four in double figures.
Willen led with 19, Boeller had 16, Alex Ressell 15 and Frankie Ellis 11.