STERLING – Just over 9 minutes into the game, Sterling earning at least a share of the Northern Illinois Big 12 West championship was very much in jeopardy.
The rest of the story was nearly all Golden Warriors, as they defeated LaSalle-Peru 41-30 on Thursday on Senior Night at Musgrove Fieldhouse. Sterling (18-12, 9-1) tied Ottawa for the conference championship.
It's the third conference title under sixth-year coach Julie Schroeder, and the team's 10th in 13 years.
Trailing 17-7 early in the second quarter, the Warriors, who have won seven of eight and 11 of 13 to end the regular season, began to take control. They closed the half with a 9-2 burst to cut it to 19-16.
"When we came out, we weren't prepared to play at all," said the Warriors' Kiarra Harris, who had game highs of 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. "We dug ourselves a hole. We needed to get ready for regionals, and if we play how we did in the first half, we're not going to go far in regionals."
After not warming up to start the second half, Sterling scored the first seven points of the half to take its first lead. It led the rest of the way.
"We had a good defensive half. We just needed to pick our offense up," said the Warriors' Gabby Sandoval, who scored 10 points. "Our defense helped a lot. Defense is big for us, and running. Once we started running, everything clicked."
Kaitlyn Bauer, who scored nine points, scored the first four points, putting back her own miss and scoring off a feed from McKenna Pearson, who had four assists. Stephanie Kester added a 3-pointer, her only points of the night, to make it 23-16 with 6:07 left in the third quarter.
LaSalle-Peru (10-16, 3-7) cut it to 25-23 on Madison Held's putback at the buzzer ending the third quarter.
Sterling scored the first six points of the fourth quarter to go up 31-23. First, Harris hit a bucket from down low. Bauer and Pearson then each knocked down a pair of free throws.
The Cavaliers cut it to four twice down the stretch, the latter instance at 34-30 on Mia Porter's 3-pointer with 3:10 to play. Porter led L-P with nine points.
Those were the Cavs' last points. The Warriors finished with a 7-0 spurt that included a bucket by Alexis Strong, a free throw by Sandoval, a strong driving field goal by Bauer, and two more free throws from Sandoval.
"We get in these ruts on offense, and we struggle at times," Schroeder said. "But defense is about effort and heart, and our kids have a lot of that."
Star of the game: Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks
Key performers: Gabby Sandoval, Sterling, 10 points; Kaitlyn Bauer, Sterling, 9 points, 4 steals; Mia Porter, L-P, 9 points
Up next: Class 3A Sterling Regional semifinal, Sterling vs. Rock Falls, 8 p.m. Tuesday