(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
DEXTER -- Faced with their biggest second half deficit this season, the Sikeston Bulldogs turned to their seniors to save the season.
Trailing by seven points late in the third quarter against Notre Dame in the Class 4, District 1 championship game, things looked very bleak for the state's No. 1 ranked team.
But in an instant, Sikeston, led by its four seniors, turned the game around with a late surge in the third quarter and then stepped on the gas in the fourth quarter to keep its stranglehold on the district with a 66-52 victory over Notre Dame at the Bearcat Event Center in Dexter.
It's Sikeston's third straight district title and the school's 20th overall.
The Bulldogs (26-0) move on to play Farmington in Wednesday's Class 4 Sectional game at Mineral Area College at 6 p.m.
On Friday, if the Bulldogs were to make a comeback, Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield knew his seniors would have to be the ones to lead the charge.
"There is no replacement for experience," Holifield said. "They've been on the floor in a lot of big, big games. Those guys really have been in a some pressure situations and they responded well."
The Bulldogs led the game from the outset, but Notre Dame (16-12) managed to overcome a 12-point first half deficit themselves to surge ahead 40-33 on an Alex Beussink 3-pointer with a minute to go in the third quarter.
At that point, Bulldog senior Janeil Hatchett knew his team needed a lift.
"It was just that instinct of winning that kicks in," Hatchett said. "Something just ticks off in your head when they got that lead on us."
The comeback started on the ensuing trip when senior Corey Porter scored an inside basket and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but Hatchett was able to get the offensive rebound and putback to cut the lead to 40-37.
Hatchett then stole the inbounds pass, missed a layup, but got his own rebound and kicked it to fellow senior Will Holifield who drilled a 3-pointer to tie the score at 40-40 with 20 seconds left in the quarter.
"The only thing going through your mind is you can't let it end," Will Holifield said. "If we're going to go down, we're going to go down swinging. I had confidence in myself and my teammates stepped up their games as well."
As fast as Notre Dame had built a seven-point lead, Sikeston had erased it without even crossing halfcourt.
"That shows the character of their team," Notre Dame coach Kevin Roberts said. "They're notorious for making third quarter runs and putting teams away. Our goal was to not be put away and make runs of our own and that's what we did. Our goal was to get them down and see if they could respond. And when we got them down seven, they responded, and they responded big."
Sikeston kept the pressure on at the start of the fourth quarter with Hatchett scoring an inside basket, Holifield draining another 3-pointer and a Terry Jamison free throw to lead 46-40 with 6:46 left in the game.
Notre Dame's 6-foot-7 all-state senior Jacob Tolbert stopped the bleeding momentarily when he picked up a loose ball and scored inside, but Porter scored another basket, Hatchett went coast-to-coast for layup while being fouled and Holifield sank a long two to give the Bulldogs a 52-42 lead with 4:45 left.
"Give credit to Notre Dame for coming out and doing what they had to do to get back in the game," Hatchett said. "Once we settled down and made a couple shots, I knew we could come back. Will hit a big shot for us, once he hit that big shot we were on a roll."
When the damage was done, Sikeston had gone on a 19-2 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters.
Sikeston forced nine Notre Dame turnovers in the fourth quarter alone and held them to 3-of-11 shooting until they hit a couple late baskets in the final minute.
"They're undefeated for a reason," said Tolbert, who scored 13 points in his final high school game. "They really know how to come out and play all four quarters at the same intensity."
"We just had to pick it up on defense," Sikeston senior Darryl Howard said. "Me, Corey, Janeil and Will -- we've been in this situation before. We knew what we had to do. We knew if we kept the pressure up that we could win it."
Sikeston continued to pour it on in the fourth quarter as they led by as much as 66-48 with just over a minute remaining in the game. Holifield then emptied his bench as the seniors came off the floor to a roar of approval from the large contingent of Bulldog fans.
"We had some adversity thrown at us and we handled it well," Porter said. "There comes a time in the game that our seniors realize that this is win or go home. We didn't want this to be our last game. We just picked up the slack and refused to lose."
The game could not have started any better for Sikeston as they led 8-0 right out of the gates.
The Bulldogs led 12-6 after one quarter and everything seemed to be going as planned in the second quarter as Sikeston opened up a 28-16 lead with a minute remaining in the half.
But Notre Dame scored four straight points to end the half to cut the lead to 28-20 heading into halftime, at which point Roberts knew his team had a shot at pulling the upset.
"When we looked at the halftime score, we held a team that was averaging close to 80 points a game to 28 points," Roberts said. "That's awesome. The effort was there. The fight was there. And we never gave up."
In the second half, Notre Dame, still trailing 33-30, went on a 10-0 run to take its first lead of the night.
Holifield called a timeout during the run and as the Bulldogs broke huddle, the Sikeston fan base came to its feet in an effort to inspire their reeling team.
It was at that moment that Holifield said he saw a change in his players' mindset as they responded to the crowd's energy.
"Our fans were great -- there's no doubt that we were struggling at that point and our fans really got into the game and our players feed off that," Holifield said. "We have the best fans in the state and they're a big, big part of our team."
Will Holifield add, "We feed off the crowd. When the crowd gets going, we get going."
The younger Holifield had a huge offensive night, scoring 20 points, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range. He scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter.
Hatchett had a stellar all-around game, scoring all 14 of his points in the second half, and grabbing 11 rebounds with seven assists and three steals.
Howard had seven steals and four assists.
Porter had 14 points and six rebounds.
"When they needed a bucket tonight, they went to Corey Porter," Roberts said. "When you have 290 (pounds) that can create like that and move like that -- Will Holifield shot the lights out too -- inside-outside like that, they're going to be tough to beat."
The senior quartet has been a thorn in Roberts' side for years.
"I've been coaching three years and I've seen Howard, Hatchett, Porter and Holifield for the last three years and I just shake my head, 'golly, when are they gonna leave?'" Roberts said. "They've done a tremendous job there. They really represented Sikeston well."
Jamison, the lone junior in the starting lineup, finished with eight points and four steals.
Notre Dame was led in scoring by Nathan Meystedt's 16 points, including 10 in the third quarter.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Holifield said. "They play us as tough as anybody we go against and tonight was no exception. I'm really proud of our kids for taking their best blow and battling back like we did. Our kids have a lot of pride and character and they're not going to go away. I knew we would battle. I saw it in their eyes. We did not play well to start the third quarter but they responded just like I hoped they would. We know how tough it is to win district titles at this level -- it's never easy. It's a great accomplishment for our program. We responded like a championship program in the fourth quarter."
With the victory, Sikeston set a school record for wins in a season with 26, breaking the previous mark set by the 1950 and 1951 teams. It is also the first time in school history the Bulldogs have won three straight district titles.
NOTRE DAME (52) -- Nathan Meystedt 16, Jacob Tolbert 13, Joseph Siebert 6, Alex Beussink 5, Derek Landewee 4, Cody Heisserer 4, Eric Hayes 2, Jonathan Lynch 2. FG 15, FT 13-17, F 17. (3-pointers: Siebert 2, Beussink 1. Fouled out: Tolbert, Heisserer).
SIKESTON (66) -- Will Holifield 20, Janeil Hatchett 14, Corey Porter 14, Terry Jamison 8, Caleb McGee 3, Eldridge Gibson 2, Darryl Howard 2, Vashawn Ruffin 2, Keldon Warfield 1. FG 21, FT 9-18, F 18. (3-pointers: Holifield 4, McGee 1. Fouled out: none).