(Photo by Josh Mills, Staff)
SIKESTON -- The split second Sikeston's Darryl Howard stole the ball, Eli Jackson was headed towards the basket.
"I knew after he got that steal that they were going to try and attack him and foul," Jackson said. "I just cut to the goal and I knew I'd be open because they were both going towards him. I just back-doored and ended up wide open."
Howard knew it too.
"We do that all the time in practice," said Howard. "When we get the steal we just run -- get it and go."
Trailing by just three points and with possession of the ball, the Poplar Bluff Mules could not and would not get by Howard at mid-court as they attempted to either tie the game or come within one of the Bulldogs.
Howard came up with the steal and shot a pass to an open Jackson to extend Sikeston's lead to a 69-64 advantage with just 22 seconds left to play.
That's where the final score stood as the Sikeston Bulldogs held on the defeat the Mules in the SEMO Conference tournament championship game and repeat as conference champions on Friday night.
"That's a great honor," Sikeston head coach Gregg Holifield said about repeating as conference champs "Just because it's such a good conference with good teams every night. It's so competitive."
Despite the Bulldogs' close margin of victory, it wasn't particularly close for most of the contest.
Before halftime, Sikeston had gone up by as much as 18 points, 42-24, with just over a minute left to play in the half. A steady diet of Mules turnovers and Sikeston taking advantage of them led to the big advantage. Poplar Bluff committed 18 turnovers in the first half.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," Poplar Bluff head coach Lamont Frazier said. "That is the game. Especially against a good team like Sikeston. They created the situations and they took advantage of it."
Poplar Bluff cut down on those turnovers in the third quarter which coincided with a 15-1 run by the Mules to come within just two points of Sikeston with over three-and-a-half minutes left in the third quarter.
The Mules outscored Sikeston 23-13 during the third quarter while Poplar Bluff's Jay Raulston scored 10 in that one quarter alone. Eljie Johnson added six.
"The third quarter was an unbelievable quarter," said Frazier. "You look back and talk about the way the first half went, at one point-in-time we were almost down 20. To cut it to one in the second half, that says a lot about our ball team."
Sikeston went into the fourth quarter with a 55-51 lead.
Twice Poplar Bluff fought back and came within one point of tying the game. Each time, however, Niquavious Dixon seemed to be in the right places at the right times and answered with a bucket. Dixon made it 61-58 and 63-60 by answering each Mules threat.
"We were kind of struggling at that point of time and Niquavious had a big bucket for us," Holifield said. "No doubt that really helped us because Bluff just kept coming at us. They're not going to quit -- they never do. Every time we play them it's like this. It's very competitive and always a tough game."
Within the last minute Poplar Bluff had cut it back down to three points after Micheal Griggs hit one of two free throws to make it 67-64 Sikeston. Soon after though, Howard came up with his steal and Jackson sealed the win.
"We're not really that big; we're just a speed team," said Jackson. "If we play defense and run teams down, that's how we're going to get the job done."
Juqualin Wiggins led the Bulldogs with 16 points. Jackson and Will Holifield each added 14 a piece while Janeil Hatchett had 10.
Raulston led all scorers with a game-high 30 points. He also pulled down 12 rebounds. Johnson and White each added 12 on the night. Johnson had nine rebounds as well.
POPLAR BLUFF (64) -- Micheal Griggs 3, Greg Coble 2, Jay Raulston 30, Jordan Marler 5, Jake White 12, Eljie Johnson 12. FG 24 FT 11-20 F 20. (3-pointers: Marler, White 2. Fouled out: none.)
SIKESTON (69) -- Juqualin Wiggins 16, Eli Jackson 14, Niquavious Dixon 7, Darryl Howard 2, Janeil Hatchett 10, Will Holifield 14, Corey Porter 6. FG 24 FT 18-27 F 18. (3-pointers: Hatchett, Holifield 2. Fouled out: none.)