(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
COLUMBIA -- All year long the Sikeston Bulldogs have worn teams down with pressure defense and superior depth.
Once again on Thursday afternoon at Mizzou Arena the Bulldogs' formula snared another victim as Sikeston defeated St. Joseph Lafayette 64-43 in a Class 4 semifinal game.
Sikeston, now 29-0 on the season, will play for the state championship against a familiar foe, St. Francis Borgia, which defeated No. 2 ranked Soldan 71-58 in the other semifinal matchup.
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 all season and Knights (21-8) play tomorrow at 3 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.
In Thursday's game, Sikeston was in the unusual position of being behind early in the game as Lafayette built a 16-9 lead in the first quarter.
But it was all Sikeston after that as the Bulldogs outscored the Fighting Irish 53-27 in the final three quarters to win going away.
Sikeston's depth began taking its effect in the second quarter.
"That's why we play 10 players and we try to keep as much pressure as we can on the basketball," Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said. "We feel like in some point in time, it's going to take its toll on the other team. You could kind of see that happening tonight."
Lafayette coach Chris Neff, who is familiar with Sikeston after coaching at Notre Dame in the 1999-2000 season, said he knew his team would be in trouble if they didn't handle Sikeston's pressure well.
"I thought we handled the pressure very well early, and then as the game wore on I think you saw what Sikeston is capable of," Neff said. "We try every night to do what they did to us. They wore us down. They absolutely wore us down."
The Bulldogs forced 20 turnovers compared to only 10 turnovers of their own.
The Bulldogs not only wore the Fighting Irish down, they also controlled the boards, outrebounding them 40-32, including grabbing 20 on the offensive end against a front line that featured a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder and a 6-7 forward.
"We're quite at a disadvantage height wise and we've played several teams with 6-7, 6-8 type players," Holifield said. "We really give up a lot of size. It's a struggle. Fortunately, we've rebounded the ball well and that's a point of emphasis. We have to be able to rebound. Our philosophy is, whoever controls the rebounds, controls the game."
Bulldog seniors Janeil Hatchett and Corey Porter each grabbed 11 rebounds -- nine of Hatchett's came on the offensive end.
"I just wanted every rebound I could get," Hatchett said. "We knew they were going to come out and rebound hard. Coach just told us to get on the boards. That was a point of emphasis in our scouting report. It's just the 'want to' for the ball. That's what rebounding is. We just wanted the ball."
The game started well for Sikeston with four offensive rebounds in the first minute and a 5-0 lead.
But Lafayette (22-9) started to grab control as they went on a 16-4 run highlighted by a ferocious two-handed jam by Ian Toalson after a steal to lead 16-9.
"I think more than anything else (it was) adjusting to the team we were playing," Holifield said of his team's slow start. "We were having a hard time offensively getting into our flow."
Sikeston was able to get an inside basket by Porter just before the buzzer sounded to cut the lead to 16-11 after one.
But even with his team playing well, Neff knew the game was not being played at the pace that he preferred. Sikeston had already played 10 guys in the first quarter while Lafayette only had played six.
"We were playing really well in their style," Neff said. "There was fear there that, 'OK guys, you're going to have to either continue to play this well in their style or you're going to have to enforce and impose our will upon them with our style.' And that's incredibly difficult with the waves of players they bring."
Sikeston dominated the second quarter, outscoring the Fighting Irish 16-6 highlighted by sophomore Vashawn Ruffin exploding for seven straight points to propel the Bulldogs to a 20-18 lead.
"I thought he came in and gave us a big lift," Holifield said of Ruffin. "He plays with a lot of confidence and he came in and hit some big shots that really got us going."
After Ruffin's 3-pointer with 3:49 left in the half, Sikeston never trailed again. The Bulldogs took a 27-22 lead into halftime when Eldridge Gibson scored on the inside with six seconds left.
Even at halftime, despite only being down five points, Neff sensed his team had an uphill battle in the second half.
Sikeston continued its surge in the third quarter, slowly pushing the lead to double figures, eventually holding a 40-29 edge heading into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter was all Sikeston as they went on a 7-0 run to start the period to lead 47-29. The Bulldogs eventually led by as much as 64-40 with a minute left in the game.
"The second quarter and fourth quarter are disappointing quarters -- a lot to do with fatigue," Neff said. "I don't think the physical fatigue is near the problem as the mental and emotional fatigue that Sikeston puts on you. I think it's a very difficult task to ask five and six kids to go out and face that type of pressure in this type of environment and continue to excel. Our 30-game schedule prior to this, we probably saw three games like this and there's only one that I can think of that's recent."
Hatchett led the Bulldogs with 17 points to go with his 11 boards.
Howard added 11 points while Porter scored nine points with three steals.
Porter spent most of the night banging with the bruising Toalson, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
"He's a big kid that really understood positioning and stuff like that real well," Toalson said of Porter. "He's probably one of the better post players I've played this year. It wasn't easy."
Gibson scored eight points off the bench for the Bulldogs.
Lafayette was led by point guard Tim Nelson's 16 points.
"The pressure they were bringing tonight was phenomenal," Nelson said. "It was all night, 110 percent. When the starting five came out and the next five came in they gave just as much, just as hard as the first five."
Lafayette was making its first Show Me Showdown appearance since 1976 when they captured the Class 3A state championship. Neff, a graduate of Lafayette, has been at the school the past four years as the head coach.
"I'm thoroughly impressed with Sikeston," Neff said. "I've known a lot about that team over the years. As much as I'm impressed with their players, I love coach Holifield. I appreciate everything he does for kids. What you saw tonight was a celebration of what his team has accomplished over the years and what he's done in 13 years in their building. They've knocked on the door and have come across some very difficult challenges over the years and run into some very, very good teams. I'd hate to think anyone bets against them -- they're phenomenal."
Sikeston will now set its sights on seventh-ranked Borgia, a team that defeated the Bulldogs in the state championship game in 2006 and also knocked the Bulldogs out of the playoffs the past two seasons in the quarterfinals.
Holifield is hoping this time around the Bulldogs can return the favor against the Knights.
"We know it's going to be a tough game," Holifield said. "We have a lot of respect for their program. We will really have to play well to beat them. This particular group has taken it one practice at a time and one game at a time. Now we're down to one practice and one game. I know they'll come in and work and be focused on our objective at hand. This has been our objective all season. Our players have maintained their focus and their work ethic and I'm really proud of that."
LAFAYETTE (43) -- Tim Nelson 16, Ian Toalson 14, Caleb Bates 8, Xavier Kurth 3, Tyral Skeen 2. FG 13, FT 8-12, F 15. (3-pointers: Bates 2, Nelson 1. Fouled out: none).
SIKESTON (64) -- Janeil Hatchett 17, Darryl Howard 11, Vashawn Ruffin 9, Corey Porter 9, Eldridge Gibson 8, Will Holifield 6, Terry Jamison 2, Keldon Warfield 2. FG 20, FT 15-21, F 14. (3-pointers: Holifield 1, Howard 1, Ruffin 1. Fouled out: none).