(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
SIKESTON -- The Sikeston Bulldogs have shown that they can get out of the gates quickly at the start of games.
Now they've got to learn how to finish.
After leading by as much as 24 points, the Bulldogs had to withstand a furious rally by Cape Central, holding on to win 61-52 on Thursday in the semifinal round of the SEMO Conference Tournament at the Sikeston Field House.
Sikeston, seeded second, will play top-seeded Charleston for the championship tonight at 8:30 p.m.
The Bulldogs (5-0) could not have asked for a better start, something that they have done all season. But this time their opponent bit back as the Tigers out-scored the Bulldogs 35-25 in the second half.
Sikeston didn't help itself to stop the momentum as ill-advised fouls away from the goal and poor shot selection contributed to the dwindling lead.
"We got off to a great start," Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said. "I thought we played well for the first quarter and a half. We built a great lead and then I thought we lost some of our intensity and started committing fouls we didn't need to commit. We also had bad shot selection, but overall I thought our kids played hard and did some good things, especially to jump out to the lead like we did."
The Bulldogs still carried a 48-31 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Tigers slowly chipped away, cutting it to 48-39 with 6:22 left on a pair of free throws from Al Young to cap an 8-0 run.
Sikeston's J.T. Jones finally broke the drought with a long 3-pointer from the top of the key on the ensuing trip to push the lead back to double figures.
A Markeith Bratcher back-door layup and an inside basket by Jones twice pushed Sikeston's lead to 13 late in the fourth, only to see the Tigers cut the lead back to nine four different times. However, the Tigers never got closer than nine.
Several times in the final quarter, Sikeston forced long 3-point shots and unnecessary fouls, which would stop the clock and put the Tigers on the free throw line. Cape Central made 8-of-13 from the charity stripe in the fourth.
"We know it's the fifth game of the year and we lost four starters from last year, so we've got some inexperience in spots," Holifield said. "I think we'll get better as the season goes on. We had a huge lead and human nature, lots of times, is to relax. And that's something we can't do. We can't relax. We've got to keep the intensity. I think our players will learn from the mistakes we made tonight, especially on shot selection and fouls away from the bucket."
The Bulldogs came out on fire, taking an 11-2 lead four-and-a-half minutes into the game on an offensive putback by Bratcher.
A conventional 3-point play by the Tigers' Garan Evans cut the lead to 11-5, but Sikeston closed the first quarter strong with a 9-0 run to lead 20-5.
The Bulldogs continued the onslaught in the second quarter. Back-to-back 3-pointers by sophomore Zach Jackson gave Sikeston a 28-7 lead early in the quarter.
Later in the period, Jones drained an NBA-range 3-pointer to extend the lead to 35-12. Sikeston's biggest lead of the night came on a free throw by Jairius Ray to make it 36-12 with 2:04 left in the first half.
"They shot the heck out of it," Cape Central coach Drew Church said of the Bulldogs. "They really, really shot it well. I don't know what the percentages were but I felt like it kind of put us on our heels. Gregg has them do some great things offensively. They came out and punched us in the nose. They rattled us, and to be honest, we kind of knew it was coming. It was a great atmosphere, a great game for us to play right now this season."
The Bulldogs' first signs of bad decisions on shot selection and fouls occurred at the end of the second quarter as the Tigers made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 1:11 of the half, all on fouls away from the goal to cut the lead to 36-17.
Sikeston appeared to right itself in the third quarter, scoring on consecutive possessions to start the half to lead 40-17. They maintained the lead through most of the quarter until Evans knocked down a 3-pointer near the end of the period to cut the lead to 48-31.
Church said he didn't make many adjustments in the second half, but tried to get the tempo more to his team's liking.
"We slowed down a little bit against the press and we started going inside a little more," Church said. "We started attacking the basket a little more instead of them pushing us out to half-court."
The strategy worked in allowing the Tigers to cut into the lead, coinciding with the Bulldogs' going cold from the field in the second half.
"That's one thing that fires me up right now is we were down 20 and it forced our guys to really work hard and play better and get tougher," Church said.
Sikeston countered Cape Central's superior height with its relentless defensive pressure, forcing the Tigers into 26 turnovers, including nine in the first quarter.
Cape Central out-rebounded Sikeston 35-28 in the game.
The Bulldogs, despite moments of hot shooting in the first half, only finished 5-of-19 from 3-point range in the first half and were just 6-of-25 (24 percent) for the game from beyond the arc.
Cape Central (2-2) was 2-8 from 3-point range.
Overall from the field, Sikeston shot just 24-of-67 (36 percent) on the night.
The Bulldogs got another huge game from Jones, who finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and a pair of blocked shots.
Sikeston's Vashawn Ruffin, still learning his new role as point guard, had 10 points and nine assists, but struggled from the field, going just 4-of-18 overall, including 0-7 from 3-point range.
Bratcher scored nine of his 11 points in the first quarter.
Cape Central's Young led his team with 17 points. The freshman went 7-8 on free throws.
Six-foot-6 junior center Jamal Cox scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half.
Of the Tigers' regular eight players in the rotation, Church said six of them are playing varsity ball for the first time.
"They've got a really good team and great bodies and I knew they weren't going to go away," Holifield said.
The Tigers will play Notre Dame in the third place game at 7 p.m.
Charleston and Sikeston have each won three SEMO Conference Tournament titles since its inception in 2006. Tonight's matchup will mark the third meeting between the two schools in the championship game.
Both teams are ranked No. 1 in Class 3 and 4 in the latest MBCA/MoSports.com coaches poll.
CAPE CENTRAL (52) -- Al Young 17, Jamal Cox 13, Garan Evans 10, Mikey Jones 4, Marcus Dixon 4, Andre Statam 3, Braion Owens 1. FG 14, FT 18-28, F 15. (3-pointers: Evans 2. Fouled out: none).
SIKESTON (61) -- J.T. Jones 27, Markeith Bratcher 11, Vashawn Ruffin 10, Zach Jackson 8, Jairius Ray 5. FG 18, FT 7-13, F 23. (3-pointers: Jones 3, Jackson 2, Bratcher 1. Fouled out: none).