(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
DEXTER -- There was a huge void that needed to be filled with the exit of Michael Porter. The four-time all-state player was the Sikeston Bulldogs go-to-guy when they needed anything done on the floor.
On Friday night, senior Juqualin Wiggins took his place.
"He's a senior that knows how to win," Notre Dame head coach Kevin Roberts said about Wiggins. "He's determined to win and he'll do whatever it takes. He's undersized but he's just so strong. When they needed a bucket they went to him. He put the team on his shoulders."
"I'll like it when he's gone next year," joked Roberts. "He's a tremendous player."
Wiggins led the Bulldogs to their second-straight district title over the Notre Dame Bulldogs in the Class 4, District 1 championship game at the Bearcat Event Center in Dexter with a 63-52 win.
"I've been around Juqualin for seven years now and he's such a competitive kid," Sikeston head coach Gregg Holifield said. "Our seniors really work hard and set the tone. I'm very proud for our seniors.
"We lost such a great player and team leader in Michael," added Holifield. "Our kids really stepped up this year."
Wiggins, who finished with 19 points, came out of the gate as a player possessed. He snatched rebounds, came up with steals and, at crucial times, put points on the board when Notre Dame threatened early on.
"I just wanted to be a leader," Wiggins said. "Every game I just want to do what I can for my team whether its rebounding, playing defense or scoring. I just want to work hard and get the win. That's my main focus every game."
Early on, a 3-pointer by Notre Dame's Liam Maher trimmed Sikeston's lead to four points with just under a minute left in the first quarter. Wiggins halted a bit of the Notre Dame momentum with a bucket as the quarter came to a close.
Sikeston, using their relentless pressure to force seven first quarter turnovers, built a 16-point lead by the half. It was a bit of a turnaround from their first meeting this year when Notre Dame unleashed a scoreless run en route to their 66-61 victory in the regular season.
"The last time we played them, they (Notre Dame) made a 9-0 run on us so we just wanted to come out and try to make a statement," said Wiggins.
While Sikeston continued to force Notre Dame into an almost unseen amount of turnovers for the usual Notre Dame squad, Sikeston outscored them 20-9 in the second quarter with good shooting from the field (6-of-11) and a near perfect outing from the free throw line, 7-of-8. Wiggins led his squad with nine points in the first half.
"There's not very many teams that have forced us into a lot of turnovers this year," Roberts said. "Even the first time we played them we didn't turn it over that much. They got after us."
Containing and limiting the touches of Notre Dame junior standout, Jacob Tolbert, was another first half advantage in Sikeston's favor. Sikeston swarmed Tolbert with as many as three, sometimes four, defensive players if it looked as though Notre Dame even thought about getting him the ball inside.
"We were fortunate to keep him from getting the ball in positions to score," said Holifield. "I thought our players did a good job in that aspect."
Tolbert was held to eight points in the first half as Sikeston held a 34-18 lead at the break.
There was no change in the margin after the third quarter. Each team posted 16 points in the frame as Wiggins and Eli Jackson each had six points to lead the charge.
But it wouldn't be a typical Sikeston-Notre Dame game without a late run to make things interesting in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame did not break that current trend.
After trailing by as much as 18 points, Notre Dame sliced the deficit in half to cut it to a seven-point game; twice. Tolbert began to get things going in the final eight minutes leading Notre Dame with 11 points in the quarter.
"Players like him you just have to try and do what you can," Wiggins said about Tolbert. "We wanted to focus on him because we know he's one of their big players. He just kept fighting and made plays for them."
He scored on four Notre Dame possessions to make it a 55-48 game with 3:33 left remaining. Maher made it a 57-50 game nearly a minute later.
"That's Notre Dame. They always do that," Holifield said. "We've gone against them for years and they're just winners."
Although a valiant effort on the part of Notre Dame, it was too little too late as the first half deficit they had to face was too much for them to handle.
"We dug ourselves a hole," Roberts said, "and we took the second, third and fourth (quarters) trying to get out of that hole. We made a late run, which I was proud of, but once they managed our run I knew we didn't have enough in us to come back."
As Notre Dame attempted to send Sikeston to the line to try and stop the clock as much as they could, Darryl Howard sank two free throws with just over a minute left while Wiggins answered with his last basket of the night to give Sikeston a 61-50 lead.
"We knew they were going to try and lengthen the game once we got our lead," Holifield said. "They kids did a good job of stepping up and knocking some shots down."
Although not a tremendous effort at the free throw line in the fourth quarter, the notorious free throw shooting by Sikeston was not that throughout the contest. As a team they were 15-of-19 in the first three quarters. Their 7-of-14 in the fourth was just enough to help them hold on for a district championship.
"We were just on a mission," Wiggins said. "You could see it in everybody's eyes from when we first got here. Everybody was just focused. Notre Dame is a good team and worked us hard all game and never gave up. Somebody has to win and it was just our night."
Sikeston, who will face Farmington on Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. in the sectional round at Mineral Area Community College, was led by Wiggins with nine rebounds, five steals and two blocks. He was almost automatic shooting the ball with a 7-of-9 performance from the field and a 5-of-6 night from the free throw line.
Jackson and Will Holifield each added nine points apiece. Jackson added six rebounds and Holifield hit two 3-pointers for Sikeston (20-3). Howard chipped in with 10 points and three steals.
Tolbert finished with a game-high 23 points. Both Nick Koeppel and Liam Maher gave Notre Dame (21-6) eight points in their last game as seniors.
"I don't know if I've coached against a kid I respect more than Koeppel," coach Holifield said. "He just works so hard. He plays as hard as any kid we play against."
This district championship win against Notre Dame marks the second time since the 1999 and 2000 seasons that Sikeston has won back-to-back district titles. This one is especially significant for the Sikeston seniors, who proved it could still be done.
"All year we've kind of been the underdog without Mike," Wiggins said. "We've still got fighters. That's all that matters. Every player on the bench, from the jayvee, to the freshman and all the way up to the seniors are fighters."
SIKESTON (63) -- Juqualin Wiggins 19, Eli Jackson 9, Darryl Howard 8, Janeil Hatchett 5, Terry Jamison 5, Will Holifield 9, Corey Porter 6, Kil'Ron Coleman 2. FG 19 FT 22-33 F 20. (3-pointers: Jamison 1, Holifield 2. Fouled out: none.)
NOTRE DAME (52) -- Nick Koeppel 8, Liam Maher 8, Keke Kellum 3, Alex Carroll 2, Luciano Starling 4, Jacob Tolbert 23, Matt Helle 4. FG 19 FT 10-19 F 23. (3-pointers: Maher 2, Kellum 1, Starling 1. Fouled out: Carroll, Helle.)