Big day arrives for big game

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Big, big, big.

The big game takes place tonight in the biggest arena in Southeast Missouri on the big floor at the Show Me Center.

And if bigger is better, that could spell trouble for Scott County Central.

The Braves, 17-1 and ranked No. 2 in the state in Class 1, take on Sikeston, 15-3 and No. 8 in Class 4, in the first meeting between the schools since Jan. 5, 1971. A sold-out crowd of 6,844 will be on hand to watch the meeting of the two teams that have been the most consistent in Southeast Missouri this season.

"Obviously, we're looking forward to it -- win, lose or draw," Braves coach Ronnie Cookson said. "It doesn't make any difference. It's going to help us out in terms of 1A [state playoffs] and it may help Sikeston out in the long run."

Scott County Central won the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament and two other tourney titles this winter and rides a 16-game winning streak following a loss to Memphis Central on Thanksgiving weekend.

Sikeston won the SEMO Conference tournament and was the top local team in the Poplar Bluff holiday tournament. The Bulldogs enter the game with a recent conference loss to Poplar Bluff leaving a bad taste.

The much bigger school, Sikeston also brings in the much bigger team, and it will benefit from the bigger floor -- the 104-foot professional court at the Show Me Center.

The Braves are used to running their trademark pressure on anything from 80-something- to 94-foot courts, but the bigger spacing of the Show Me Center could be a factor in being able to impose their will on Sikeston.

"It will, it will, but it was fairy effective in the Christmas tournament," Cookson joked. "A lot of people don't press on the bigger floor, but we just do it to stay in shape."

The Braves were in top shape during the Christmas tournament, scoring 80 or more points in each of their four games and winning by 16 or more every time out. Only one other team managed to crack 80 for the week in any of the 22 other games played.

While the Braves played at a pace no other team could match -- 57 points in one half against Charleston -- the large margins allowed them to rest, and no team in that field was as physical as Sikeston.

Scott County, on the way to a third-place finish in the state tournament last season, suffered few losses, but one came against Notre Dame, 68-60, in the Christmas tournament. Those Bulldogs, who went on to win the Class 4 state title, had 42 of their points scored by their two interior all-state players.

"In smaller courts, it's probably a little harder to attack presses," said Paul Hale, who coached Notre Dame last year and is the athletic director there this year. "The more space you have, the easier it is to operate. That's why I like attacking presses because it's extended defense and you have more holes. I think it opens the court and you can play a little more 3-on-2."

Hale said the bigger floor means Scott County Central's defenders will have to cover more ground to contest passes and shots.

"They don't have many kids, but they didn't seem to get tired at the Show Me Center [in this season[']s Christmas tourney]," Hale said. "That's just the way they play. If you're a good press team, you're a good press team."

The Braves, coming off a 94-59 trouncing of SEMO Conference tourney runner-up New Madrid, are a good press team.

"They're so quick and do things so well, I don't know if that will really bother them," Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said of the bigger floor.

What he does hope bothers the Braves is Sikeston's big front line.

A tall task

The Bulldogs have their own all-state post player in 6-foot-6 senior Michael Porter, a three-time honoree so far. He's joined down low by Eli Jackson, a 6-3 junior who was one of Southeast Missouri's top running backs in the fall; and Cal Lane, a 6-3 senior who swept the state's Class 3 track titles in the long, triple and high jumps. Even Sikeston's starting guards -- 6-2 Juqualin Wiggins, 6-1 Niquavious Dixon and 5-10 Daryl Howard -- have size and played football during their high school careers.

"They big," said Scott County Central senior Drew Thomas, a 5-11 senior guard who is one of the Braves' top rebounders. "We've got to box out. Cal Lane is a good jumper, and Mike is just Mike. You've got to box him out or he's going to get his."

The Braves counter with 6-7 sophomore Otto Porter, Michael's cousin; 6-2 senior Desmin Williams; and 5-11 senior Randy Timmons. In addition to being shorter for the most part, the Braves also are slender in comparison. But they have been successful on the boards this season.

"The thing I've been so impressed with Scott Central is their rebounding," Holifield said, "and how they pass and catch the basketball. They put five players out on the floor who are all basketball players. They play 12 months out of the year, and you can tell those guys have a lot of time in."

For the Bulldogs to get the ball inside against Scott County Central, Wiggins will have to hold his own against 5-9 junior Bobby Hatchett, who has elevated his game to the level of Division I consideration. They call each other best friends.

"I talk to him almost every day," Wiggins said. "He always tells me how he's going to strip me, but I tell him he's too small for me. I'm going to talk to him and try to throw him off his game. I know he's quick, but I'm going to put my body on him and take care of the ball."

The pace should be fast. In fact, Braves players use the term "slow them down" to make Sikeston play at their pace, referring mostly to turnovers that can be turned into easy buckets. Neither team has distinguished itself with perimeter shooting this season, with the exception of Sikeston sophomore guard Will Holifield, the coach's son.

"Sometimes games like that are totally different than what you expect," Gregg Holifield said, noting the impact big-game pressure can have. "You never know until the game gets into a flow.

"The goal and objective for us is to get back and eliminate easy buckets," he added. "They are so good at pushing down the floor and they will hit gaps. You've got to eliminate dribble penetration."

Thomas said he and Hatchett have seen just about every type of defense a team can throw out there.

"It's going to be a good game," he said. "If we play like we should, like we could, I mean, we shouldn't have any trouble with them."

No trouble?

"I've got confidence in my team when we go out there and go hard like we do in practice everyday, there's no telling what can happen."

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