POPLAR BLUFF -- Coming off an emotionally draining and physically taxing game against arch-rival Charleston on Thursday at the Show Me Center, the Sikeston Bulldogs had no time to bask in their victory as they had to take to the road again to play Poplar Bluff on Friday.
The Bulldogs, showed signs of being drained from the previous night, but had just enough left in its tank to defeat the Mules 67-61 in front of a packed house at Poplar Bluff High School on homecoming night.
Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield knew bouncing back 24 hours later would be a tall task against an improved Poplar Bluff team that entered the contest having won 12 of its last 14 games.
"It was tough, we had such an emotional game last night," Holifield said. "Then you have another tough road game tonight against a good team in a great atmosphere. I thought our players handled some situations well. We didn't have our normal energy, but you have to give Bluff credit, they played hard and did some good things."
Sikeston (19-1, 5-0 SEMO Conference) had to rally from a 27-26 halftime deficit before taking the game over in the third quarter, out-scoring the Mules 19-8 in the period.
The Bulldogs took the lead on the first possession of the second half on a Vashawn Ruffin 3-pointer and they never relinquished it.
Kyland Gross followed up with a 3-pointer from the left corner to pull ahead 32-27. The Mules never got closer than four the rest of the way.
Ruffin hit a jumper with 8 seconds left in the third quarter to extend the Bulldog lead to 45-35.
Sikeston opened up a 52-39 lead early in the fourth quarter on a Ruffin 3-pointer from the top of the key.
The Bulldogs matched that 13-point lead twice more in the fourth, once on another Ruffin 3-pointer and then on an inside basket by Reese Porter with 4:06 left in the game.
The Mules (13-5, 1-2 SEMO) didn't go quietly, though, as they managed to cut Sikeston's lead to 61-57 with 1:04 left in the game.
Seven seconds later, Sikeston's Cord Sheehy was fouled. The senior came through with two clutch free throws to extend the lead to six.
"To be a championship team, you have to make your layups and you have to make your free throws," Holifield said. "Fortunately tonight down the stretch we hit big free throws and hit big layups."
After a Joseph Eyler floater in the paint with 45 seconds left, Sikeston broke the Mules' press and found J.T. Jones for a layup with 34 seconds left.
Porter then rebounded a missed 3-point attempt and was fouled. He hit both ends of a one-and-one free throw situation with 24 seconds left to ice the game with a 67-59 lead.
Poplar Bluff's Stacy Gipson scored a layup with eight seconds remaining to reach the final margin.
"We knew they would come out and be very aggressive offensively and defensively and they were in the first half," Holifield said. "We kind of settled into the game and in the third quarter we knocked shots down and were able to build a lead which put us into a position to hold on. We knew they wouldn't quit. They never quit. They just keep coming at you. We are fortunate to get out with a win."
Inspired by a raucous student section and a huge homecoming crowd, the Mules started the game well, rolling out to a 6-0 lead.
The Mules continued to hold the advantage through the entire first quarter until Sikeston's Markeith Bratcher nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing with five seconds left to give the Bulldogs a 14-13 lead after one.
The Mules took control again in the second quarter and led by as much as 26-22 on a Logan Keeney free throw with two minutes remaining.
A slashing drive by Jairius Ray and a layup by Porter cut the lead to 27-26 by halftime.
"We knew it would be difficult," Holifield said. "Any time you go on the road in the SEMO Conference, and I've been in the SEMO Conference for 17 years, and it's never, ever easy. We get there tonight and play in front of a great crowd and a great atmosphere, we knew it was going to be a difficult game. Fortunately our players stepped up in the second half and played well at times."
Ruffin matched his season high with 25 points, with 19 coming in the second half. He also had six assists despite battling flu-like symptoms and a quad muscle pull that has hampered him the past few weeks.
"He didn't feel well and he didn't have a lot of energy, but he did a great job, especially in the second half," Holifield said of Ruffin.
Jones followed up with 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He was questionable to even play the game after rolling his ankle on Thursday against Charleston.
"J.T. helped us get the basketball down and really played well on a bad ankle," Holifield said. "I didn't know if he was going to play before the game, but Vashawn and J.T. gutted it up and I'm proud of them that they were able to do that."
Bratcher added 10 points while Kyland Gross scored seven points with six steals and three assists.
"He's just got such a big heart," Holifield said of Gross. "He works hard and you know every single night you're going to get a great effort out of him."
Porter added six points, five rebounds and four steals.
The Bulldogs were actually dominated on the boards by the Mules, getting out-rebounded 41 to 22.
"We didn't rebound well but J.T. got some big boards when we needed them," Holifield said. "That's one of our strengths, even though we're undersized a lot of time, but we normally rebound much better than we did tonight. We normally work harder than we did, but we just didn't have that energy level we needed to beat a great team tonight."
Sikeston made up for it with good shooting. The Bulldogs made 9 of 21 (43 percent) from 3-point range. They were 25 of 60 (42 percent) overall from the field.
But the most telling statistic from the game was turnovers, as Sikeston forced 23 turnovers on the Mules. The Bulldogs only committed 11 turnovers.
Poplar Bluff shot 21 of 50 (42 percent) from the field and were 4 of 11 (36 percent) from 3-point range.
The Mules were led by sophomore Chris Stocks with 16 points. Gipson, a 6-7 junior, scored 11 points with 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Sikeston's win marks the 11th in the last 12 meetings between the two schools, including a 78-53 victory in the SEMO Conference Tournament in December.
The Bulldogs will have a much-needed break before hosting Cape Central on Senior Night at the Sikeston Field House on Friday.
"We're going to get better," Holifield said. "We try to improve every day and we'll go back to work in practice."
SIKESTON (67) -- Vashawn Ruffin 25, J.T. Jones 15, Markeith Bratcher 10, Kyland Gross 7, Reese Porter 6, Jairius Ray 2, Cord Sheehy 2. FG 16, FT 8-15, F 18. (3-pointers: Ruffin 3, Jones 3, Bratcher 2, Gross 1. Fouled out: none).
POPLAR BLUFF (61) -- Chris Stocks 16, Stacy Gipson 11, Lucas Tibbs 8, Joseph Eyler 6, Ryan Brittingham 6, Lance Gray 5, Brandon Stuckenschneider 4, Logan Keeney 3, D'Marcus Patterson 2. FG 17, FT 15-23, F 16. (3-pointers: Brittingham 2, Stocks 1, Gray 1. Fouled out: none).
The Sikeston J.V. team improved to 13-2 on the season with a 69-51 come-from-behind victory.
The win avenged one of the Bulldogs' losses to the Mules from the Notre Dame J.V. Tournament in November.
Sikeston trailed 26-23 at the half and were down by as much as nine points in the third quarter before rallying to tie the score at 43-43 heading into the fourth.
Sikeston out-scored the Mules 26-8 in the fourth quarter to win going away.
Sikeston was led by Zach Harrison, who scored all 16 of his points in the second half. He also had six rebounds and four steals.
Chris Scott followed up with 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals.
SIKESTON (69) -- Zach Harrison 16, Chris Scott 15, Zach Jackson 9, Juwon Kimble 7, Marquise Parks 6, Dantrell Brown 5, Dominique Dyes 4, Blake Below 3, Jaylen Mallory 2, Earnest Fobbs 2. FG 18, FT 9-18, F 16. (3-pointers: Scott 3, Harrison 2, Kimble 1, Below 1, Jackson 1. Fouled out: none).
POPLAR BLUFF (51) -- Nick McAnulty 12, Pat Tilman 10, Malik Metcalf 8, Brandon Reams 8, Shannon Woods 6, Tristain Francisco 4, Colton Mannon 3. FG 16, FT 10-19, F 17. (3-pointers: Reams 2, Tilman 1. Fouled out: none).