STERLING – When it came down to crunch time, Sterling's experience trumped Dixon's youth.
Sterling junior Alex Soriano scored seven straight points to give the Golden Warriors their first lead of the game int he fourth quarter, and classmate Zach Rehmert hit six straight free throws in the final minute to seal Sterling's 57-52 victory over the Dukes at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
"Credit Sterling for being mentally stronger, more aggressive on the boards and in their offense, and taking advantage of second-chance opportunities and our turnovers," Dixon coach Jason Mead said. "The game got very physical in the fourth quarter, and we missed some shots because of it … and they didn't."
Dixon (3-17, 1-5 NIB-12 West) led nearly the entire way, thanks to a hot-shooting first half and some balanced scoring through the first three quarters. The Dukes hit 13 of 18 first-half shots (72.2 percent), and were 17-for-27 from the floor (63 percent) through the first three quarters.
The Dukes led by as many as 12 twice, the last time at 27-15 with 3½ minutes left in the second quarter, and still led by seven (42-35) when Laron Carr scored on an inbounds pass from Matt Coffey with 2:19 to go in the third.
"For the first three quarters, we basically did everything we prepared for and did a great job with it," Dixon sophomore Cal Jarrett said. "But we didn't execute down the stretch, and they were a lot more ready to finish strong than we were."
Micah Miller's putback with 1:55 left closed the third quarter, then Miller and Sterling Thornton both scored after offensive rebounds to open the fourth, bringing Sterling (9-12, 3-3) within one at 42-41.
Soriano then went on his own personal run, snapping out of a 2-for-10 shooting funk to that point. He scored off a steal under the basket, then hit a pair of free throws before nailing a 3-pointer from the right wing to give the Warriors a 48-42 lead with 4:06 remaining.
"Us bench guys, we know we play a big role on this team," Soriano said, "and I'm happy it was my turn tonight. A lot of times, when I miss the first shot or two, I feel like I'm going to keep missing. But I kept looking for the open shots, my teammates did a great job of finding me, and it really boosted my confidence to get that easy one off the steal."
Logan Wharff pushed the Sterling lead to 50-42 with a strong take to the basket before Dixon could stop the bleeding.
Kyle LeBlanc was the answer for the Dukes. He snapped an 8 minute ,18 second Dixon drought with a layup after he stole the ball at midcourt, then Jarrett hit a pull-up jumper after Sterling missed the front end of a one-and-one. After the Warriors missed the front end of two more one-and-one chances, Zack Everett hit one out of two free throws for a 51-46 lead – but LeBlanc answered, hitting both ends of a one-and-one to bring Dixon within 51-48 with 35.4 seconds to play.
But Rehmert had the solution for Sterling. He was the lone Warrior in the backcourt on the next few inbounds passes, forcing the Dukes to foul him. He calmly stepped to the free-throw line and hit all six foul shots in the final 33.5 seconds to keep Dixon at arm's length.
"I was frustrated that I hadn't been getting good looks and knocking down shots all night," Rehmert said, "but my teammates trusted me to be the one to shoot those free throws. I wasn't too nervous; they're 'free' throws, so you should be able to knock them down no matter what the situation.
"Credit Dixon for knocking down quite a few shots early on. But once we picked up the intensity on defense, we got got some turnovers and worked our way back into it."
A LeBlanc putback and a Coffey pull-up jumper in the lane kept Dixon close, but Rehmert kept answering by knocking down free throws, and the Dukes couldn't completely close the gap.
Sterling's full-court press took its toll on the Dukes, as they committed eight of their 14 turnovers in the second half. The Warriors also dominated the boards, outrebounding Dixon 46-27 – including 28 on the offense glass.
"We knew we needed to hit the boards hard if we wanted this victory," LeBlanc said, "but even with them outrebounding us, we still thought that we could maybe win with the way we were shooting the ball. It felt great to run the offense like that and see it work so well, and we're going to remember this game and learn some lessons from it."
LeBlanc led the Dukes with 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting, and he also had five rebounds and three assists. Jarrett had 13 points, four rebounds and two blocks, while Carr finished with 10 points and four assists. Dixon finished 53.8 percent from the floor (21-for-39).
"This is a learning experience, and hopefully we do better in the future because of this loss," Jarrett said. "This one came down to the final minutes, and hopefully next time, we get the opposite outcome."
"The kids gave a great effort," Mead added, "but we just have to get stronger, physically and mentally, in the late going."
Rehmert and Soriano both scored 13 points for Sterling, with Rehmert adding five rebounds. Micah Miller had eight points and nine rebounds. Everett also had seven rebounds and three assists while taking the defensive assignment of guarding Jarrett in the second half. The Warriors shot just 30.4 percent (21-for-69), but did take 30 more shots than Dixon and committed only six turnovers.
"Dixon took it to us early, hit some shots and got some confidence going, which is big for a young team," Sterling coach Jim Preston said. "We got off to another slow start, got hit in the mouth right away, and we didn't know how to react.
"But it was nice to see us have much better emotional involvement in the second half, especially on defense, and we really locked in the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter and did what we needed to for us to win."
Sterling 57, Dixon 52
Star of the game: Kyle LeBlanc, Dixon, 16 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists
Key performers: Cal Jarrett, Dixon 13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks; Laron Carr, Dixon, 10 points, 4 assists; Alex Soriano, Sterling, 13 points, scored 7 straight points to give Sterling first lead of game in 4th quarter; Zach Rehmert, Sterling, 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 straight FTs in final minute to seal win
Up next: Sterling at Kaneland, 5:30 p.m. Saturday; Dixon at Oregon, 7:15 p.m. Tuesday