(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
FARMINGTON -- After completing a perfect 30-0 season last year and capturing the school's first-ever basketball state championship, Sikeston's players had dreams of returning to the final four once again.
But those dreams ended in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday night with a 65-64 loss to Imagine College Prep in a Class 4 Quarterfinal game at the Farmington Civic Center.
The Bulldogs (23-5) found themselves down by as much as 14 points in the fourth quarter, but a furious rally down the stretch gave them a chance at victory in the final seconds of the game.
However, Sikeston's final shot at victory was off the mark, ending the Bulldogs' season.
"I was really proud of our kids for battling back, but you have to give Imagine Prep credit because they played a great game," Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said. "It's a very heart-breaking defeat, and when you get that close to a final four appearance, makes it even more difficult."
After a wild sequence in the final minute, Sikeston was taking the ball out on the sideline with three seconds remaining. The Bulldogs found Vashawn Ruffin in the corner for a well-guarded 3-point attempt that hit a strap overhanging the goal, resulting in the ball being called out of bounds with 0.7 seconds left.
Imagine (23-7) inbounded the ball to run out the clock and ending the game and the season for the Bulldogs.
"We just set up a corner screen for Vashawn, trying to get as good a shot as we could in that situation," Holifield said. "It was a tough contested shot. But our kids did a great job of battling back to put us in that position to have a shot to win the game."
The Bulldogs trailed 57-43 early in the fourth quarter, but the team put together a comeback that was on the verge of being legendary in Sikeston lore as they steadily chipped away at the Bears' lead.
"We never felt comfortable because you knew they would make a run, because that's what championship teams do," Imagine coach Tony Irons said. "I was telling my kids that a run's coming, but we just had to keep our composure and stay aggressive and keep attacking the basket. When they cut it to one, it really wasn't a surprise. The clock doesn't move fast enough in that situation. We knew they were going to come and they fought back, and I thought we did a good job at the end of executing."
Imagine still led 63-54 with less than three minutes left in the game when the Bulldogs went on an 8-0 run. After Sikeston's Keldon Warfield scored back-to-back baskets, Terry Jamison scored on a drive and made two free throws to cut the lead to 63-62 with 1:18 left.
Imagine's Kevin Baker made two free throws to extend the lead back to three. On the following possession, Bulldog sophomore J.T. Jones scored on an offensive putback with 28 seconds left to cut the lead to 65-64.
On the ensuing possession, Jones stole an Imagine Prep pass off the Bulldog press and made his way up the floor, but he lost the handle on the ball as he attacked the basket with 12 seconds left.
"We always try to take advantage of the defense trying to get back and I thought we had an advantage at that time so we didn't call timeout," Holifield said.
Imagine then turned the ball over once again on the press with nine seconds left, giving Sikeston another chance at the victory.
With 3.3 seconds, Imagine deflected the ball out of bounds setting up Sikeston's final play.
"That was a flurry," Holifield said of the final 28 seconds. "We were just trying to get in a position to get to the rim. We had a turnover and then we quickly got it right back and had a chance to set up our last shot. That is a play we run in those situations."
Irons, who witnessed his team win its sectional game by one-point as well, knew his team was in for a fight on Saturday.
"It's a fantastic win for us -- that's a great team, a championship team," Irons said. "You can say whatever you want to say about them losing kids to graduation, but they fight like champions. There's a reason why they are champions. In order for us to even compete with them we felt like we had to get out here and battle them, play hard and match their intensity, and I think we did a good job with that today."
The two teams battled each other in the first quarter with seven lead changes, but the Bears finished the period strong with a 19-12 lead.
The second quarter proved to be explosive as Ruffin put on a shooting clinic, draining 3-pointers on four consecutive trips down the floor, sending the estimated 2,000 Bulldog fans into a deafening roar as his final deep shot tied the score at 24-24.
"He did a great job of knocking down shots," Holifield said of Ruffin. "He put us in a position to stay in the game."
The Bulldogs took the lead on offensive putbacks by Kil'Ron Coleman and Ruffin, forcing Irons to burn a timeout with 5:07 left in the quarter.
The Bears responded though, reclaiming the lead on a Jeremiah Price slam dunk with 4:02 left. Coleman briefly gave the Bulldogs the lead back on a basket inside on the following trip at 30-29 with 3:02 left, but that was the last lead Sikeston would have the rest of the night.
Imagine held a 36-33 lead at the half.
The Bears controlled the rebounds in the first half, which was something Irons addressed before the game.
"That was something going into the game that we felt we had to do, because when we played them in January (a 69-62 Sikeston win) I felt they beat us on the glass and the 50-50 situations with loose balls," Irons said. "And the only way we were going to compete with them today was to get out there and try to win those. I thought we did a good job on the boards and in those 50-50 situations."
The Bears led by as much as 13 in the third quarter as Sikeston's offense went stagnant. Imagine eventually held a 53-41 lead heading into the fourth.
"We just didn't score," Holifield said of his team's third quarter performance. "We just had eight points in the quarter and we had a hard time putting it in the basket. And we were getting good shots that we normally make."
The Bears twice led by as much as 14 in the early stages of the fourth quarter before the Bulldogs made their comeback.
Holifield said he knew his team would put up a fight until the end.
"Absolutely, I knew my kids wouldn't quit and they didn't quit until the buzzer -- they left their hearts on that floor tonight," Holifield said. "We just did a great job of pressuring the basketball and forcing turnovers to get back in the game. We had players step up offensively. Unfortunately our last shot didn't go in."
The Bears advance to the final four for the first time in the school's short six-year existence. They not only avenged a loss to the Bulldogs in January, but an 82-44 loss to Sikeston in last year's quarterfinal game.
"We knew to get to the next step that we had to knock Sikeston off," Irons said. "That's part of the reason why we went down there in the summer, to play teams of their caliber. And my A.D. scheduled them early on and we wanted to play them. We knew that eventually we had to get back here. We knew they were going to be here and we knew we had to go through them to get to that next step. Every step we take is history because we have no history."
Imagine Prep, a St. Louis team loaded with athletes, were led by Baker's 17 points. Emanuel Vaughn followed up with 15 points and Martavian Payne added 12.
Imagine out-rebounded the Bulldogs 26-20 in the game. The Bulldogs forced 13 turnovers, but the Bears shot well from the 3-point line, making 5-of-8 and they were 13-of-18 on free throws.
Ruffin finished with a varsity career-high 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including four 3-pointers. He scored 14 in his huge fourth quarter surge. Jamison followed up with 12 points, four assists and four steals.
Bratcher had nine points, sinking 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
The Bulldogs were 8-of-18 (44 percent) from 3-point range and were 21-of-48 (44 percent) overall from the field. Sikeston finished with 12 assists and 11 turnovers.
The Bulldogs will graduate four seniors: Jamison, Warfield, Coleman and Caleb McGee. The four were a part of Sikeston's greatest stretch in school history, going a combined 74-9 in their three seasons as varsity players and playing an integral role on last year's state title team.
"This is just a great group of guys," Holifield said. "They were a pleasure to coach and they're so much fun to be around. They had unbelievable success by what they accomplished as players and as a team. I'm very proud to be a part of it."
Holifield reflected on his team's season in which they captured a fourth straight district championship and their fourth straight quarterfinal appearance, an even more impressive accomplishment considering the personnel they lost from last year's team.
"I thought our players did a great job this year," Holifield said. "I'm really proud of their effort. We had great work ethic every day and I thought we improved as the season went on. That really speaks well for our kids. We lost our five top scorers from last season. For our kids to come back and have this kind of year really says a lot about our team."
SIKESTON (64) -- Vashawn Ruffin 26, Terry Jamison 12, Markeith Bratcher 9, Kil'Ron Coleman 6, Keldon Warfield 5, Caleb McGee 4, J.T. Jones 2. FG 13, FT 14-17, F 21. (3-pointers: Ruffin 4, Bratcher 3, McGee 1. Fouled out: Coleman).
IMAGINE PREP (65) -- Kevin Baker 17, Emanuel Vaughn 15, Martavian Payne 12, Eric Clark 9, Jeremiah Price 9, Miles Nettles 2, Kenneth Harris 1. FG 20, FT 13-18, F 16. (3-pointers: Baker 3, Clark 1. Fouled out: none).