STERLING – All throughout the first half Tuesday night, Sterling girls basketball coach Julie Schroeder could be heard beseeching her team to run its offense with more patience.
The message must have sunk in during halftime. Running their sets through 5-foot-11 junior forward Kiarra Harris, the Golden Warriors shot nearly 50 percent from the field in the second half and rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to beat Northern Illinois Big-12 West rival Ottawa 55-52 at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
"We finally got it into our heads to be patient from Coach Schroeder telling us over and over," Sterling senior guard Stephanie Kester said. "We started getting the ball to Kiarra, and that opens up the floor for the rest of us. We were more relaxed [after halftime], we moved the ball around and got good, open looks, and got a nice win on our home floor."
The game came down to the final 3 minutes. Ottawa's Lindsey Greene (6 points, 2 assists) and Sterling's Bailey Oetting (6 points, 5 rebounds) traded baskets, then Greene hit another mid-range jumper with 2:39 to play to tie the score at 49. After Harris missed her lone 3-point attempt, Raquel Romano (5 points, 2 rebounds) was there for the putback bucket and a 51-49 lead.
After an empty possession by Ottawa (5-4, 2-1), Harris caught a pass from Kester (15 points, 3 3-pointers, 2 assists) in the high post, then bounced a back-door pass back to Kester for a layup and a 53-49 Sterling lead with 1:07 to play. Harris (10 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists) then hit both ends of a one-and-one with 22.1 seconds remaining for a 55-49 lead.
"Harris is one of the outstanding players in our conference, and she stepped up for them and we couldn't match her energy," Ottawa coach Mike Cooper said. "Kester killed us in the first half, and they both made plays down the stretch.
"I thought they outhustled us late in the game, just wanted the rebounds a little more than we did. In a game between two of the top teams in the conference, it's going to come down to one or two plays; they made them tonight, and we didn't."
The Pirates had their chances late. After Harris' free throws, Jasmine Bailey (23 points, 3 steals, 2 assists) hit her seventh 3-pointer of the night to cut the deficit to 55-52, and Cooper quickly called timeout.
After Sterling sophomore guard Gabby Sandoval (9 points, 3 assists, 2 steals) missed the front end of a one-and-one with 8.8 seconds left, Ottawa got one final shot. But Cassidy Rice's 3-pointer from the right wing hit the back of the iron and bounced away as the buzzer sounded.
"We couldn't set up our defense against them [in the second half]," Bailey said. "They did a good job of running their offense, and I don't think we were ready for what they did after halftime."
While the Warriors (6-3, 3-0) established their up-tempo pace by running the floor often in the first half, at times they were a bit out of control. Sterling committed 11 of its 16 turnovers before halftime, and relied mainly on Kester's perimeter shooting and baskets in the lane by several other players, including a pair of buckets from McKenna Pearson (4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists), to keep it close.
"We always want to push the floor, try to tire out the other team by making them run around on defense," Harris said. "Steph can be unstoppable when her shot's on, and she kept us in it until the shots finally started falling for the rest of us. Once we started to dump the ball into the post and run our offense long enough to find openings in the defense, that's when we started to get some easier looks."
Ottawa responded to Sterling's early defensive pressure and fast-break attack, and closed the second quarter on a 15-7 run to take a 28-23 lead into the locker room.
Bailey hit three straight 3s from the exact same spot in the lefthand corner early in the third – two on assists from Catie Carlson (4 points, 7 assists) and the other from a Greene dish – to keep Sterling at bay, but the Warriors took a 38-37 lead on Harris' drive to the basket with 3:47 left in the third. After two Oetting free throws, Ottawa got a runner in the lane from Rice (4 points, 6 rebounds), then a three-point play from Jaleesa Kindred (12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals) to take a 42-40 lead into the fourth quarter.
Harris dished off to Kaitlyn Bauer to open the fourth, then took it strong to the hoop on Sterling's next possession. She then found a streaking Sandoval for a fast-break layup and a 46-42 lead with 5:11 left in the game. A free throw by Mady Toynton and a driving bucket by Kindred made it 46-45 Sterling, then Sandoval hit a free throw before Greene hit the first of her two jumpers to set up the stretch run.
Sterling 55, Ottawa 52
Star of the game: Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 10 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists
Key performers: Stephanie Kester, Sterling, 15 points, 3 3-pointers; Gabby Sandoval, Sterling, 9 points, 3 assists, 2 steals; Jasmine Bailey, Ottawa, 23 points, 7 3-pointers, 3 steals; Jaleesa Kindred, Ottawa, 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals
Up next: Sterling Shootout, Sterling vs. Fremd, 7:45 p.m. Friday