The ending looked so much the same that it can be easy to forget -- or even notice -- just how different the story of the Scott County Central boys basketball team was this season.
The Braves won their fourth consecutive Class 1 state championship, but very little leading up to that result was the same for Missouri's most decorated team.
After rolling over opponents for much of the last three seasons with a roster that changed little from year to year, Dominique Porter was the lone starter to return to SCC this season.
It's been more than a month since Porter led the Braves to state title No. 16 during a season in which the 5-foot-11 senior captain averaged more than 23 points and seven rebounds a game.
Porter, the Southeast Missourian player of the year, is open about what it took to turn this group of Braves into champions.
"We all had a lot of egos, big egos," Porter said. "We all thought that we couldn't be touched."
That would have to change.
The Braves bid well-publicized goodbyes to 10 seniors last season, including Georgetown Hoya Otto Porter.
Senior LaMarcus Steward also played in the final four as a junior, but the rest of the faces were new to the varsity level.
"We kind of had a clash together," Porter said. "Instead of us coming together, we clashed and we kind of just wanted to go our separate ways."
That never was more obvious than at the College of the Ozarks camp last summer.
"I mean, we were playing well," Porter said. "We beat a lot of teams until we got to about the championship, the semifinals. We just started arguing and stuff, and we threw the ball away and we wound up getting beat.
"It was all thanks to our ego. Everybody thought that we were the best thing out there, so our ego killed us the most when it came to playing those teams."
Porter said there were accusations of ball-hogging and lots of criticism being aimed at each other when mistakes were made, and the result was a loss to a team he felt they could have routed.
"Instead of the way we do now where we just encourage each other, if we throw the ball away or if we shoot the ball, we would yell at each other," he said. "After we yelled at each other, someone would get mad and then wouldn't play defense, and they would come down and score."
That loss was the beginning of what proved to be a long lesson for Porter and the Braves.
"We had a long talk about that," Porter said. "I mean, we had a couple problems farther in the season when the season had first started, but we just all came together and figured out what we were going to have to do. Good teams don't argue. Good teams just encourage and try to help each other out."
The Braves lost their first two games of the season, as many losses as they had the previous season, to two high-quality opponents at the Riverbend Classic at New Madrid County Central.
But Porter said he saw the potential in his team for the first time during those games, and that the team was happy with the way it played.
"I felt we had came a long way since where we were in the summer as far as a team," Porter said. "But more as like our skills, we had a lot to work on. That's kind of how I felt. If we wanted to win state, we were going to have to work very hard to get there again."
Porter pointed to rebounding and defense as the areas that had to improve.
"Every time we go into practice, every time the ball goes up on the rim, you've got to put a body on somebody and box them out," Porter said, describing how the Braves improved on the boards throughout the season. "We knew that we weren't going to be able to just use our athletic abilities to try to go up there and try to jump and get the ball, so we had to be smart about it and box out that big guy and get the rebound."
Practice also was the place where the team most struggled to come together.
"Everybody wasn't doing what they were supposed to do," Porter said. "Some of us was goofing off, in bad moods and stuff like that.
"Our coach, coach Kenyon [Wright], just came in there and told us, 'We can't have that. You can't come in here with a bad attitude or with personal problems. When you come in here, you've got to be 100 percent dedicated to the game.'
"He said all those personal problems we were going to have to worry about later."
Porter said the personal problems ranged from getting in trouble during the school day to getting a low grade to something that was happening at home and plenty of things in between.
"Coach was always there for you," Porter said. "He said he'd always be there for you, but when you go to practice, we need to 110 percent concentrate."
Porter includes himself on the list of people who needed to change as the season went on to make the team better.
"I did because coming into the season, playing with Otto and Bobby [Hatchett] and all them, I was just so used to everything going right and everything clicking," Porter said. "When the season first started, I kind of had my hopes -- I wouldn't say my hopes -- but my expectations for the team a little high when we first started, so when something didn't go right, I got mad."
After a conversation with Wright and resolution to encourage teammates instead of getting angry with them, Porter saw progress.
"The more I stopped getting on to them, the more practice went more gently," Porter said. "It was less arguing. We played more as a team."
While he still may have been refining his verbal leadership skills, there was no doubt that Porter was leading the Braves on the court.
The Braves won their next seven games after opening the season 0-2. That streak culminated with a 72-53 trouncing of Leopold at the Southeast Missourian Christmas tournament.
"I think was our biggest downfall in the Christmas game, that Leopold game," Porter said. "We came in there and we had just beat Leopold. People were like, 'Yeah, SCC is back. SCC is going back to state.' And then the next game I think we kind of got a big head about it and we played Notre Dame."
It was Notre Dame that did the trouncing the next night. The Bulldogs beat the Braves 76-39 in the tournament semifinals.
"I was kind of frustrated more than anything because it seemed like we were doing so good and that we were putting in the work," Porter said. "It just didn't seem like it was paying off. So I mean I was kind of frustrated, but I wasn't mad about it. People didn't expect us to beat Notre Dame anyway."
The Braves also won the Scott-Mississippi Conference tournament during that time behind Porter's 25 points, six rebounds and four steals in the title game.
The Notre Dame rematch allowed Porter and his teammates to measure their progress. They took a lead into the fourth quarter before falling by 10 points at home.
"We were up at halftime, so I could see a big leap from where we used to be in the Christmas tournament," Porter said.
SCC reeled off five more wins after that, but Wright was involved in a car accident that caused him to miss three of the victories.
"When coach Kenyon got into that car wreck, I felt we had progressed so much that we had came together, not just as a team, but as a family," Porter said. "Every night we went out there, it was really emotional. So every time we went out there and played, we did it for coach Kenyon. Just the emotion in the room, you could see that everybody was more of a family than we were earlier in the season."
The result was a more focused team.
"We didn't argue as much," Porter said. "When we came into practice, there was no talking. It was just straight business. We didn't goof off or anything. Just knowing that we want to win every game for coach Kenyon just to show that, even though he's gone, that we're still doing good."
The Braves lost three games in a row to Class 3 teams after Wright returned. They would prove to be the final losses of SCC's season. Class 2 Sturgeon was the smallest school to beat the Braves.
"Coach Kenyon told us that he put that schedule on us so whenever we get to the first round of districts or whatever that we would know how to react to those kind of teams," Porter said.
After a lopsided win over Delta to close the regular season, the Braves prepared for the playoffs with another sit down with Wright.
"He told us, this is exactly what he told us, 'Everybody is 0-0.' Every record, including our record -- we had lost 10 games -- all of our records, everybody is 0-0," Porter said.
By this time, the Braves understood their roles as basketball players on a team trying to win a state championship and as supportive teammates.
"I've been playing with most of these guys most of my life, so I pretty much knew that, after a while, we were going to come together," Porter said. "I mean, it might take a minute, but as far as coming into districts, I know that they knew how much this meant to me and my other seniors. I knew that they were going to want to help us get back up there."
The Braves romped through their district as most expected before setting up a rematch with Risco, a team with upset hopes after playoff losses to the Braves the previous two seasons.
SCC raced to a 100-76 win behind 43 points from Porter. Suddenly the goal of a four-peat seemed more attainable than it had all season for Porter.
"I believe that overall that was the best game that we played," he said. "We came out there, we played as a team. Everybody was in double digits that game, so I mean I think that was pretty much the best game that we played the whole season. We didn't argue or anything, so I think that was the best way that I can explain it."
As they did throughout most of the playoffs, the Braves relied on just five players -- none of whom stood taller than 6 feet -- to play the whole game at as frenetic a pace as they could manage while pressing and pushing the ball up the court.
Porter was joined by his junior brother Jaylen Porter, Steward, senior Antonio Johnson and sophomore Larandis Banks.
"I think I more tried to guide them in the right direction instead of just going to them and just telling them," Porter said about addressing the underclassmen. "Like I told Larandis, 'If you're open, shoot the shot.' I told Jaylen, 'If you're open, shoot the shot. Don't hesitate. A made shot is a good shot.' That's just what I tried to tell them two."
Banks scored 20 points in the state championship, while Jaylen Porter had 10 rebounds, both well above their season averages.
Dominique Porter, meanwhile, turned in a masterful final performance in SCC's 79-72 win over Drexel. He scored 28 points while making 12 of 13 free-throw attempts. He also had 14 rebounds, twice as many as any player on Drexel's team, which played six players taller than 6 feet for significant minutes.
Looking back, Dominique Porter had little trouble deciding what made him most proud about the season.
"Just how far we came," he said. "I was talking to [assistant coach] Andrew Pullen earlier. I told him I still can't believe it that we won state. Just from the team we were until now, it still feels like we still haven't won state."
He also had a quick answer for the most important thing he learned.
"That anything is possible," he said. "That if you put your mind to something, that you'll go far. Look at us. We were the 5-foot club. Anything is possible."
Porter hopes to play basketball in college next season but also wants to stay close to home. So far, he hasn't found a school where he can do both, but he has been offered a spot on the Highland Community College team in Kansas.
"The only thing I can do is pray about it," Porter said. "If God's plan, if he wants me to go to college and play basketball, he does. If he doesn't, oh well."
Regardless, Porter plans to pursue a college degree and eventually become an X-ray technician.
He'll leave SCC with three state championship medals and some advice for next year's team as it tries to win a fifth consecutive title.
"The work that you put into it is the work that you're going to get out of it," Porter said.
That belief was something he developed this season along with an impressive amount of perspective and introspection, all of which played a role in SCC's success.
"After it paid off, that's when I kind of more understood what that meant," Porter said, talking about the work he and his team put in this season. "It might not have came as early as I wanted it to, but it was soon going to happen because the work that we put into it put us all the way up to state to win the state title.
"So what I said earlier -- I might not have been happy because it just didn't happen at that time, but it happened eventually. If you just keep working at it and keep working at it, it'll soon happen."
Read more about Dominique Porter and hear from his father, brother and coach here.