STERLING – The Golden Warriors kept coming up with big plays to extend the game, but it was the Ottawa Pirates who came up with the biggest one.
Cody Stokes split a pair of free throws after his offensive rebound with 2 seconds left in the second overtime Tuesday night at Musgrove Fieldhouse, providing the winning margin in the Pirates' 61-60 victory.
"We kept giving ourselves chances, but they just made one more play than we did," Sterling coach Jim Preston said. "I thought the kids showed resiliency after falling behind early, and they played with enthusiasm and intensity and spirit and stayed positive.
"Ottawa's a good team. They've made a lot of big plays this year, and credit to them for making another one tonight."
Stokes (6 points, 5 rebounds) came up with just Ottawa's fourth offensive rebound on the final possession of the game, pulling down John Carroll's miss and getting fouled on his putback attempt.
After missing the first free throw, he sank the knee-knocking second one, as the ball swished through the net.
"The rebound kind of just came to me, after Sterling clogged the lane to stop John's drive to the basket," Stokes said. "I wanted to hit both free throws, but I was happy to get at least one."
"Cody's been a playmaker for us all year, coming up big defensively and hitting key shots," Ottawa coach Mark Cooper said, "and he's made a lot of plays late in games. Tonight, he comes up with the free throw to make the difference."
Each team called a timeout after the free throw, then Stokes poked away Sterling's inbounds pass for the steal to seal the deal.
"I knew I had to get at least a touch on the ball when they threw it in, just to start the clock and take time off the clock," Stokes said. "I played it safe at first, kind of held back so they couldn't throw it over my head, then sprinted forward when the pass was short. Luckily I tipped it away, and they couldn't recover it in time."
Sterling (8-12, 2-3 NIB-12 West) erased a 47-43 deficit in the final 3 minutes of regulation, as Zach Rehmert (18 poins, 5 rebounds) hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key before Sterling Thornton (20 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks) poked away the ball for a steal and converted a layup on the other end to tie the game at 48 with 1:40 to play.
Ottawa (15-3, 4-1) ran clock on its final two possessions, and Sterling couldn't get a shot off in the final seconds after the Pirates came up empty when Thornton blocked a shot in the lane.
In overtime, Carroll (17 points, 6 rebounds) scored Ottawa's first six points as the Pirates took a 54-49 lead with 2 minutes left. But Cornell Hartz and Thornton each scored on drives to the basket. Stokes hit a pair of free throws shortly after missing a pair to give Ottawa a 56-53 lead with 1:11 to go, but Hartz found Thornton for an open 3 from the right wing 8 seconds later to tie the game at 56.
After Ottawa's J.D. Bryant (18 points) missed a shot in the lane with 44 seconds left, Sterling ran the clock down and called timeout with 10.4 seconds left. But once again, Thornton's shot came after the buzzer, sending things into another OT.
"We were excited that we kept getting back into the game, just living to fight another quarter," Thornton said, "and we really wanted to capitalize on it. We're pretty smart basketball-wise, and it was second nature to us to keep fighting, but we just came up a little short."
Sterling scored first in the second overtime, as Micah Miller put back a Rehmert miss for a 58-56 lead. But Nick Harsted answered for Ottawa, scoring in the lane twice – the second time after recovering a loose ball – for a 60-58 lead with 3:05 remaining.
Rehmert hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with 1:32 to go to tie it up, then both teams turned the ball over inside the final minute. Sterling's came with 14 seconds left, setting up Ottawa's final possession.
"Sterling made a lot of plays to keep the game going and getting opportunities to win," Cooper said, "and we were very fortunate to come up with that offensive rebound and get sent to the line."
"We played a good game, but it wasn't enough," Thornton said. "Now, we have to use this to put a fire in our guts to come back strong and win the next game."
Ottawa 61, Sterling 60, 2OT
Star of the game: Cody Stokes, Ottawa, 6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks, winning free throw with 2 seconds left
Key performers: Sterling Thornton, Sterling, 20 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks; Zach Rehmert, Sterling, 18 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block; JD Bryant, Ottawa, 18 points; John Carroll, Ottawa, 17 points, 6 rebounds
Up next: Dixon at Sterling, 7:30 p.m. Friday