DIXON – Hoops fan or not, Admiral Ackbar would have easily identified the key to Sterling’s victory over Pekin on Thursday in the first round of the Dixon tournament.
The Golden Warriors used their signature trap to build a monster lead, then barely navigated the Dragons' trap to survive 50-44. Sterling draws Rochelle in a quarterfinal matchup and a Class 3A regional title-game rematch.
Sterling (7-8) led 42-26 after three periods before the Dragons’ full-court, trapping press forced eight turnovers in the fourth.
Pekin sophomore Jesse Ulrich hit a high-arcing 3 from just right of the circle that made it 44-38 with 2:20 to play. After two free throws from Sterling senior McKenna Pearson, Abigail Lowman’s second triple of the game got the Dragons within five at 46-41.
Sterling freshman Gabby Sandoval hit the front end of a bonus before Pekin senior Erika Johnson hit a wide-open 3 from the right corner for three of her game-high 16 points. It made it a one-possession game at 47-44 and steered Sterling’s plane decidedly toward the mountain.
“When they made their run, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. Please, we can’t blow this,’ " Sterling senior Alexis Strong said. "We just lost our heads.”
“We’ve got to play under control and not panic all of a sudden,” Sandoval said.
Pearson hit one of two throws, and Sandoval hit two more on the next trip to seal the victory. The Warriors shot 8-for-11 at the line in the fourth for all of their points in the frame.
Strong, who tied Kaitlyn Bauer and Stephanie Kester for a team high with nine points, was 4-for-4 in the fourth and 5-for-6 overall.
“I try not to think about the shot. I just stare at the rim, wipe my hands on my shorts and just go up with it,” Strong said.
“At the free throw line, it’s BEEF – balance, elbow, extend and follow-through,” Pearson said. “You just say those words to yourself and take a deep breath. Free throws win games.”
Sterling shot 22-for-29 at the line on the game, compared to Pekin’s 10-for-25 mark. Johnson alone was 3-for-14.
“We’re hot and cold,” Pekin coach Becky Fulkerson said. “It comes down to intensity and effort. We just didn’t look like we were ready to step off the bus.”
Kester woke up ready to rip cord and staked Sterling to a 6-0 lead with two carbon-copy 3s from the right wing, set up by Kiarra Harris assists.
Pekin responded and led 17-15 midway through the second period before Sterling rattled off a 9-2 burst to close the half. It was capped by a Strong runout set up by the trap. Sandoval poked the ball free at midcourt and Strong narrowly beat the buzzer.
The surge continued, Sterling outscoring Pekin 18-7 in the third to complete an extended 27-9 run. The Warriors had four runouts in the period.
All six Warriors who scored had at least seven points, as Pearson scored eight and Sandoval added seven to go with five steals.
After Bauer batted a skip pass up the floor, corralled it and scored midway through the period, Strong skied for a second offensive rebound and a putback on the next trip for a 38-23 lead.
Four seconds before the end of the period, Sterling senior Kiarra Harris (8 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists) spun into the lane and went glass to make it 42-26.
The fourth period, albeit frustrating (see: Pearson clapping with consternation written all over her furrowed brow, after the Dragons’ press forced a third turnover in less than a minute), offered something to focus on in practice and the rest of the talent-laden tournament.
“We’ve just got to work a little bit harder with ball pressure in practice and create that game-type situation.” Strong said. “We’ve got to learn to not lose our heads and keep our composure.”
Star of the game: Alexis Strong, Sterling, 9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, block, assist, 5-for-6 at free-throw line (4-for-4 in fourth period)
Key performers: All six Sterling scorers had 7 or more points; Erika Johnson, Pekin, 16 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals
Up next: Dixon tournament quarterfinal – Sterling vs. Rochelle, 3 p.m. today