ST. DOMINIC CHRISTMAS TOURNAMENT: In familiar ground, Sikeston advances to another championship game

O’FALLON, Mo. – For the 10th straight year, the Sikeston Bulldogs are in the finals of the St. Dominic Christmas Tournament.

The top-seeded Bulldogs advanced to the finals of the 26th St. Dominic Tournament by holding off fifth-seeded Francis Howell Central 68-62 on Saturday night at St. Dominic High School.

The Bulldogs will play the host school and second-seeded St. Dominic in the championship on Monday at 6:30 p.m. St. Dominic defeated third-seeded Fort Zumwalt South 55-49 in overtime in the other semifinal.

Against Francis Howell Central (3-4), Sikeston led for nearly the entire game, including by as much as 10 points, but never could pull away from the Spartans who operated a deliberate, patient offense to try to offset the Bulldogs’ pressure defense.

The strategy kept the Spartans close and allowed them to close a 9-point Sikeston lead to 64-60 with the ball, but with 30 seconds left, the Bulldogs’ Leroy Atkins deflected a pass that Payton Howard corralled.

The Spartans then were forced to foul Colby Henson, who made two free throws to extend the lead to 66-60. Central’s Gabe Dickerson then scored on a drive to cut the lead to four, but the Spartans had to foul Henson. The senior came through with two more clutch free throws to seal the game with 14 seconds left.

“Colby is a terrific shooter, and I had all the confidence in the world that he would step up and make those free throws,” Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said. “That’s a credit to the work he’s put in as a shooter.”

Francis Howell Central is under new coach Brian Cissell, whose team pulled a minor upset by beating Wentzville Holt in the first round.

“We’ve come out of the gate and played six ranked opponents, and Sikeston is a perennial powerhouse every year,” Cissell said. “We knew coming in it was a good measuring stick for our program. Sikeston represents the kind of program we’re trying to be. So to compete the way we did and play with that kind of passion the whole game, you know we feel good about it, but we don’t like the fact that we got beat. But to compete like that against a program like that, we’ll take it.”

Sikeston’s shooting kept the Spartans at bay, including stellar free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter, hitting 8 of 9 from the charity stripe.

Sikeston drained a season-high on 3-pointers, hitting 11 of 21 from beyond the arc.

“Sikeston shoots the ball as good as anybody we’ll play,” Cissell said. “They have five guys out there that connect on 3’s, and their shooting percentage was close to 50 percent from the 3-point line, and I felt like we guarded the 3-point line pretty well.”

Sikeston (5-2) trailed by as much as four points in the first quarter but rallied back to lead 16-14 on a Howard 3-pointer after one.

Sikeston only trailed once in the early part of the second quarter before taking the lead for good and holding a 38-32 edge at the half.

“We were playing with great energy in the first half, but you have to give Francis Howell Central credit, they are a good basketball team,” Holifield said. “They have an outstanding player, and they are well-coached and play very smart.”

Sikeston led by as much as 10 points in the third quarter. However, Central managed to trim the gap to 52-47 by the end of the period.

Henson and Atkins both hit huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Bulldogs sustain their lead. Atkins’ 3 with 2:10 left grew the lead to 64-55. Dickerson then scored back-to-back conventional 3-point plays to set up the final events.

Atkins scored 17 points, hitting 4 of 6 from 3-point range, with three steals. Lontas McClinton scored 17 points with seven rebounds.

Both juniors have been integral parts of the team so far this season.

“I’ve been pleased with Leroy and Lontas,” Holifield said. “Both of them work hard and give great effort in practice, and you can see that carrying over into games.”

Howard, who battled intense defensive pressure from the Spartans, followed up with 14 points and four assists.

Henson chipped in with 10 points.

Bulldog senior Clark Steward had three points but continues to fill the stat sheet, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out nine assists compared to just one turnover. He also had three steals.

Senior Kenyon Smith also came off the bench and provided “outstanding effort and energy,” according to Holifield. Smith had five offensive rebounds, two assists and a steal in the game.

Myles Estrada, the Spartans’ junior standout, finished with a game-high 27 points. Dickerson added 16.

“We follow his lead,” Cissell said of Estrada. “He’s fearless and composed, and he kind of sets the tone for our team. He’s a nice player.”

Sikeston will be gunning for its fifth straight championship in the St. Dominic Tournament and the ninth in 10 years.

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FRANCIS HOWELL CENTRAL (62) – Myles Estrada 27, Gabe Dickerson 16, Jonathan Gardner 7, Logan Scott 6, Kannon Cissell 2, Ryan Hoshaw 2, Tyree Jackman 2. FG 27, FT 1-6, F 14. (3-pointers: Estrada 5, Dickerson 1, Gardner 1. Fouled out: none).

SIKESTON (68) – Leroy Atkins 17, Lontas McClinton 17, Payton Howard 14, Colby Henson 10, Nick Harrison 4, Gage Rolwing 3, Clark Steward 3. FG 23, FT 11-15, F 7. (3-pointers: Atkins 4, Howard 3, Henson 2, Rolwing 1, McClinton 1. Fouled out: none).

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