O'FALLON -- Facing a team with quickness, size and good shooters, the Sikeston Bulldogs found itself in trouble in the championship game of the 19th Annual St. Dominic Christmas Tournament on Saturday night.
The Bulldogs let a big lead slip away against Fort Zumwalt South and were staring at a fourth quarter deficit for the first time this season.
But the top-seeded Bulldogs made crucial stops and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to defeat second-seeded Zumwalt South, 61-58, to capture its third straight championship in the tournament.
"This is a great win for our team," Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said. "It's a great tournament. I'm just happy for our kids, who I thought played extremely hard all week."
Saturday's game was the most intense in the tournament.
After leading the entire game, the Bulldogs' had mounting foul trouble and were struggling from the free throw line. Zumwalt South finally overcame a 13-point deficit and took the lead with 6:50 left in the game on an inside basket by 6-foot-4 senior Justin Hugge.
Zumwalt South (10-3) led three more times in the fourth quarter but they never could get the lead past two points as Sikeston would answer each time with crucial shots and free throws.
Sikeston tied it on a basket by Vashawn Ruffin and then reclaimed the lead on an inside basket by Reese Porter with 2:30 left in the game.
Zumwalt South's Marshawn Blackmon, who had made nine straight free throws, then missed two with 43 seconds left in the game.
On the ensuing trip, Porter scored again on a feed from Ruffin after breaking the Zumwalt South press to extend Sikeston's lead to 59-55 with 30 seconds left.
Blackmon, who scored a game-high 26 points, then sliced through Sikeston's defense for a layup to cut the lead to 59-57.
Sikeston then turned it over against the press and Blackmon was fouled on a drive to the hoop.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore made the first free throw, but missed the second. Sikeston's J.T. Jones was immediately fouled on the rebound.
Jones then hit both ends of a one-and-one free throw to extend Sikeston's lead to 61-58 with 10 seconds left.
After going 3 of 11 in the first three quarters from the charity stripe, the Bulldogs made all six of its attempts in the fourth quarter.
"You have to make those free throws to win the basketball game," Holifield said. "We didn't shoot them well all night but we did in the fourth quarter. That was the difference."
Zumwalt South worked for a game-tying shot, but Preston Whitfield's long 3-point shot was well-defended by Ruffin and just grazed the front side of the rim. Time expired as Sikeston was able to secure the rebound.
"I thought we defended it very well," Holifield said. "We picked up in man and took the 3-point shot away. Our players and Vashawn did a good job contesting a very difficult shot."
Zumwalt South coach Bill Friedel said his team got it in the right player's hands, but didn't get as clean a look at the basket as he had hoped.
"We figured they would switch to man and we tried to get a double screen at the top," Friedel said. "The screen really was a little late, so (Whitfield) was contested. That's our best player with the ball taking the shot."
Sikeston (11-0) had won its first two games in the tournament convincingly and appeared to be on that path on Saturday.
After a tightly contested first quarter, in which Sikeston led 18-15, the Bulldogs surged ahead in the second quarter.
Sikeston went on a 9-0 run to start the quarter highlighted by Jones' steal off the press and pull-up 3-point shot on the fast-break that brought the Bulldog faithful to its feet, increasing the lead to 25-15.
"We had some sloppy ball-handling and of course Sikeston took advantage of that and that's what got us behind," Friedel said. "Their pressure gets to you at some point during the game. We made a couple sloppy long passes and those aren't going to be completed against Sikeston."
The Bulldogs led by as much as 34-21 with 2:23 left in the half, but Zumwalt South closed the quarter strong with a 6-0 run.
Zumwalt South carried the momentum into the third quarter, twice cutting Sikeston's lead to two points.
After Jones scored to push Sikeston's lead to six, Zumwalt South's 6-foot-8 senior Jon Cook banked in a fade-away 15-foot shot at the third quarter buzzer to cut the lead to 47-43 to set up the exciting fourth quarter.
Sikeston was led by Jones' 23 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Ruffin followed up with 14 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals. Porter added eight points.
All three were named to the all-tournament team.
"I thought all three of them really had a good tournament," Holifield said. "But I thought it was a complete team effort for us to win the championship."
Zumwalt South was just 15 of 29 (52 percent) from the free throw line in the game and only 3 of 8 in the fourth quarter.
"That was probably the difference in the game," Friedel said. "We shot enough free throws to win the game but we didn't make them."
Sikeston was just 4 of 23 (17 percent) from 3-point range and they were 24 of 65 (37 percent) overall from the field.
They were even on assists-to-turnovers with 15 apiece. The Bulldogs grabbed 44 rebounds on the night against the much bigger Zumwalt South squad.
Despite a poor shooting night and foul trouble that kept Jones and Porter on the bench for long periods, Holifield was pleased to see his team could still find a way to win the game.
"I thought our players worked hard," Holifield said. "We had stretches where we controlled the boards. I felt like during adverse situations that our players pulled together and played as a team."
The Bulldogs held Zumwalt South sophomore standout Whitfield to just 10 points, well below his average of 21 per game.
"They're an excellent team as always," Friedel said of Sikeston. "They're well-coached. They play as hard as anybody we ever play. They have a good tradition. It's a good challenge for us."
Saturday marked the second-ever meeting between Sikeston and Fort Zumwalt South, last playing two years ago in the semifinals of the St. Dominic Tournament -- a 66-48 Sikeston victory.
Prior to Sikeston's three straight tournament championships, Fort Zumwalt South had won five tournament titles in a row.
The Bulldogs will not play again until Saturday when they play Parkway South in the Cape Central Tiger Shootout.
FORT ZUMWALT SOUTH (58) -- Marshawn Blackmon 26, Preston Whitfield 10, Justin Hugge 10, Eli Hlinak 5, Jon Cook 4, Matt Galvin 2, Brendan O'Brien 1. FG 20, FT 15-29, F 16. (3-pointers: Hlinak 1. Fouled out: none).
SIKESTON (61) -- J.T. Jones 23, Vashawn Ruffin 14, Reese Porter 8, Markeith Bratcher 7, Zach Jackson 4, Jairius Ray 2, Kyland Gross 2, Jeterrence Harris 1. FG 20, FT 9-17, F 20. (3-pointers: Jones 3, Bratcher 1. Fouled out: none).