(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
SIKESTON -- The Sikeston Bulldogs have made a living on fast starts so far this season and Monday night was no different against Poplar Bluff in the first round of the SEMO Conference Tournament at the Sikeston Field House.
Sikeston, seeded second, bolted out to a 21-5 first quarter lead and never looked back, defeating the sixth-seeded Mules 78-53 to advance to the semifinals of the tournament. The Bulldogs play the winner of the Cape Central-New Madrid County Central game on Thursday at 8 p.m.
The Bulldogs, winners of 10 of the last 11 meetings with the Mules, were never challenged as they led 43-19 at the half and cruised the rest of the way.
"I thought we came out and we started out with good energy in the game and we did dictate the tempo a little bit," Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said. "We were allowed to put pressure on the ball which created points off turnovers, which helped us."
The Bulldogs limited the Mules to 1-of-10 shooting in the first quarter and 11 of Poplar Bluff's 15 turnovers came in the first half.
"You can't beat a team like Sikeston getting off to a start like that," first-year Poplar Bluff coach William Durden said. "We turned the ball over a little bit tonight and that got them off to a good start. Sikeston is a team of runs and they made some big ones on us and that's what got us behind."
The Bulldogs had built a sizable halftime lead buoyed by the improving point guard production from senior Vashawn Ruffin, who had seven points, six rebounds, eight assists and four steals in the first half alone. Ruffin, who played two-guard last year, finished with 15 points and a career-high 10 assists.
"They pushed the pace in transition, but once they didn't have it they were very patient," Durden said. "(Ruffin) did a great job tonight of controlling the tempo of the game."
Sikeston (4-0) continued to extend the lead in the third quarter, taking a 64-37 advantage into the fourth quarter where the mercy clock ran for a few minutes before the Mules were able to get the score under the 30-point margin in the final minutes.
The Bulldogs held its biggest lead at 72-39 early in the fourth.
Junior forward J.T. Jones also continued his solid play on the young season, finishing with a game-high 17 points with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. He had 10 of his rebounds in the first half.
"He is strong, he's aggressive -- I was really impressed with him tonight," Durden said of Jones. "He can shoot a little bit from the perimeter, but his intensity inside is what hurt us. I mean, his offensive rebounds -- we just couldn't keep him off the boards."
The Bulldogs had several moments where they were sharp offensively, finishing with an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of 24 to 11.
"I thought our kids played well and shared the basketball and played as a team offensively and defensively," Holifield said.
Many of those assists were kick-outs to wide open 3-point shooters. The Bulldogs knocked down 7 of 20 (35 percent) from 3-point range, which is something that caught Durden off guard.
"Their shooting really surprised me tonight," he said. "I know they've been working on it and they've been shooting it well this season, but I didn't expect them to make that many 3s. It really neutralized what we tried to do on defense. We tried to run and jump a little bit and it left a couple guys open thinking that maybe they would miss, but they were on tonight."
The Bulldogs shot 32 of 62 (52 percent) overall from the field.
The Bulldogs out-rebounded the Mules 36-24 in the game. Poplar Bluff was just 1 of 7 from 3-point range.
"One of the things we really worked on was trying to break the press, but one of the things we didn't do tonight was after we broke the press, we didn't attack the back end," Durden said. "Their (halfcourt) defensive pressure kind of neutralized our aggressiveness on offense. We really wanted to attack their zone, but their front two guys played so hard it took us out of everything we wanted to do on offense."
Poplar Bluff (0-2) was led by 6-foot-7 junior center Stacy Gipson with 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
Lance Gray and Lucas Tibbs each had 10 points for the Mules.
Sikeston junior Jairius Ray came off the bench to score a varsity career-high 12 points with six rebounds.
POPLAR BLUFF (53) -- Stacy Gipson 12, Lucas Tibbs 10, Lance Gray 10, Pat Tillman 8, Brandon Stuckenschneider 6, Chris Stocks 4, Joseph Eyler 3. FG 16, FT 18-23, F 17. (3-pointers: Tillman 1. Fouled out: Gipson, Stocks).
SIKESTON (78) -- J.T. Jones 17, Vashawn Ruffin 15, Jairius Ray 12, Markeith Bratcher 9, Kyland Gross 7, Reese Porter 6, Zach Jackson 4, Cord Sheehy 4, Jeterrence Harris 4. FG 25, FT 7-14, F 19. (3-pointers: Ruffin 3, Jones 2, Gross 1, Bratcher 1. Fouled out: Porter).