The two arch-rival heavyweights traded punches for four quarters, but it was second-seeded Charleston that dealt the biggest blows down the stretch as the Bluejays captured the first SEMO Conference Tournament championship, defeating the top-seeded Bulldogs 79-72 in front of a jam-packed Field House of more than 3,000 raucous fans Friday night.
Afterwards, Bluejay players hoisted the huge trophy that will travel with the winning team each year.
"We're pleased -- I was telling the kids in the dressing room that we're the first SEMO Conference champions of our new league tournament," said Charleston coach Danny Farmer. "We're very thrilled with that. It was just a great atmosphere. A kid couldn't ask for anything better than this. I'm just pleased we won that game. It could've gone either way."
The Bulldogs had an answer for everything Charleston threw at them for more than three quarters, but fatigue might have been a factor against Sikeston late in the game.
By the middle of the third quarter, Sikeston had control of the game, building a nine-point lead after Matt Ritch scored a layup to lead 53-44 with 2:30 left.
But Charleston guard Shawn Sherrell began to take charge, scoring at will on pull-up jumpers. The 5-foot-9 senior tallied 10 of his team-high 22 points in the third quarter to keep the Bluejays close.
"Sherrell played a great game -- just a great game," said Farmer.
Sherrell also had a game-high nine assists.
Sikeston (3-2) was still clinging to a 65-60 lead with 5:27 left in the game, but Charleston's Antonio Riggens hit a huge 3-pointer to cut the lead to two.
Moments later, Sikeston's Ray Rodgers fouled out, leaving a rebounding void in the middle.
"The biggest thing is we got hurt on the boards in the fourth quarter and we didn't handle it very well," said Holifield. "I thought we out-rebounded them all night until about five minutes to go in the game. We got in foul trouble and we lost Ray and that hurt us."
That was also the time that Sikeston's free throw shooting abandoned them. The Bulldogs were on target for most of the game, making 14-of-16. But the Bulldogs were just 3-10 in the final 5:07 of the contest.
"They got fatigued and missed free throws and that was the difference in the game -- they were knocking them down earlier," said Farmer.
Sikeston was still leading 68-65 after a Julian Beard basket with four minutes left, but Charleston responded with a 6-0 run to take the lead for good.
Sikeston twice cut the lead to two points down the stretch. The Bulldogs' best chance to make a game of it came and went with two missed free throws with 0:53 left and trailing 75-72.
The Bluejays hit two free throws and Sherrell hit a layup with five seconds left to reach the final margin, marking Charleston's biggest lead of the night.
Bluejay all-state senior Jamarcus Williams, in just his second game back from a leg injury, may have been the X-factor for Charleston.
Williams, who scored just two points with three rebounds in Thursday's semifinal game against Notre Dame, looked much more comfortable Friday as he scored 15 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had six steals, most coming on entry passes to the post.
"He was the difference in the game -- if we didn't have him then we wouldn't have won the game," said Farmer.
After Rodgers fouled out, Williams had his way in the paint, scoring six points during a two-minute stretch late in the fourth, all on offensive putbacks.
"He was probably the difference in the game in the fourth quarter because he just took over the boards," said Holifield.
Charleston's victory spoiled a standout performance by Sikeston sophomore Michael Porter, who scored a season-high 32 points, grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds and had three steals in what might have been the best game of the 15-year-old's short career.
"Michael's a game player -- he came to play," said Farmer. "He left his heart out on the court tonight. He was just like a man possessed. I could see it in him -- he was ready to play."
Said Holifield of Porter: "He was just outstanding. He stepped up big-time. He's got such a great mentality and mental toughness about him. He just did a terrific job."
Rodgers added 15 points with eight rebounds and two steals. Ritch came off the bench to score 11 points. Beard, Sikeston's leading scorer, was held to eight points.
Charleston also got strong games from Justin Clark with 18 points and Riggens with 13 points, 11 coming in the second half.
Junior Brian Parham had eight points and eight rebounds.
Both teams tied in rebounds with 39 apiece.
Sikeston finished with 16 turnovers.
Throughout the first half, neither team led by more than four points. Sikeston led 16-14 after one quarter and Charleston held a 32-30 lead heading into halftime.
Sikeston scored 29 points in the third quarter to take a 59-56 lead into the final frame.
Charleston out-scored the Bulldogs 23-13 in the fourth quarter.
"We've played some tough teams, but I think this was the toughest game we've had so far," said Farmer. "You develop character when you're in big games. We were down against Pine Bluff in the Riverbend and we pulled that one out. They realized then that the game isn't over until the buzzer sounds. Tonight we just kept chipping away and chipping away and just overcame it. It's a shame somebody had to lose that game."
Holifield had nothing but praise for the Bluejays as well.
"We just played, in my opinion, one of the top teams in the state of Missouri in any classification -- I just think they're outstanding," said Holifield. "Both of these teams have been in big games. I'm proud of our players too, they battled and competed in a terrific atmosphere. I can't say enough about both teams. There's going to be some good games down the stretch for both of us. Hopefully we'll play well and have a chance to advance on this year."